NASA Can Probably Stop An Asteroid, But Wouldn’t Detect A Comet In Time, Study Finds

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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NASA would only be able to detect a comet on course to hit Earth 22 months in advance, but it would take five years to cobble together a mission to stop it. Those are the chilling results of a NASA study scientists presented to a conference in Tokyo, Japan Friday.

Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center based their study on the Siding Spring comet, which they thought would collide with Mars in October of 2014. Scientists only detected the comet 22 months before it nearly hit the Red Planet.

Scientists applied those observations to test NASA’s response time to a comet on a collision course with Earth. They determined humanity is woefully unprepared for a similar object approaching Earth.

“It is extremely difficult to detect a comet like Siding Spring much more in advance than was done,” Dr. Joseph A. Nuth, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who co-authored the research, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The trick is to be able to react to such a threat quickly — and this is currently almost impossible.”

The best way to stop an asteroid or comet from hitting the Earth on such short notice may be to send a spacecraft up to intercept it. But even then, NASA would need at least five years to construct a reliable spacecraft and man it.

Nuth’s study suggests time could be saved by building several interceptor vehicles and keeping them on standby in the event of an impending collision. Such vehicles would sit in storage until needed to redirect an incoming asteroid or comet, eliminating the need to rush construct to meet a deadline.

“Spacecraft can be thrown together quickly if you don’t worry about reliability,” Nuth said. “However the 5 year schedule included in the paper is typical of schedules to build high reliability spacecraft such as OSIRIS-REx [a NASA asteroid probe]. Cutting corners can be done but it decreases reliability on what could potentially be the most important mission ever launched by mankind.”

When asked how NASA was working on detecting comets earlier, Nuth replied, “NASA is not.”

“Comets are not currently a priority in the Planetary Defense program,” Nuth said. “However, if a cometary hazard were detected by asteroid hunters (and they do discover comets) I am sure they would try to deal with the problem.”

NASA officials have spent years grappling with the issue of how to stop a comet from hitting the Earth. Former NASA administrator Charles Bolden told reporters in 2013 the only current response to this type of “surprise” comet or asteroid was to “pray.”

Comets are rarer than asteroids, but can carry more than 100 times the energy of a typical asteroid. Comets also hurdle through space at a higher speed than asteroid, usually traveling at a velocity of 20 kilometers per second. Potential damages would me much greater from a comet strike — though asteroid strikes are hardly desirable.

Asteroids are about 100 times more common than comets, but are smaller and can approach Earth undetected. Global asteroid detection programs have identified 16,214 near-Earth objects of all sizes, according to the International Astronomical Union. Of the 715 new near-Earth objects discovered so far this year, only 21 were comets.

“A comet is not necessarily a killer,” Nuth told TheDCNF. “There are larger and smaller ones as with asteroids and there are many parameters to consider such as exactly where & how it strikes the Earth, its composition, porosity, internal strength, density, etc.”

In 2016, NASA and other federal agencies simulated a response to an asteroid striking Earth. Officials were unable to deflect an asteroid on course to hit Earth with four years of warning.

The simulation’s “city-killer” asteroid ended up landing off the Southern California coast. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel coordinated a simulated mass evacuation of the Los Angeles area to mitigate the damages of a potential tsunami.

In the event a real asteroid does hit Earth, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office would work with FEMA, the Department of Defense and other agencies to coordinate disaster responses.

Congress approved $50 million for near-earth object observations and planetary defense in 2016, up from just $4 million in 2010. This money will be spent improving NASA’s ability to detect asteroids, hopefully allowing for more warning.

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