Table of Contents
If you’re reading this, chances are an asteroid hasn’t wiped out life on Earth yet.
But in the event that our planet is in imminent danger of a world-ending attack, NASA has a special team tasked with warning everyone about the impending disaster.
Lindley Johnson is a senior program executive for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which tracks near-Earth objects (NEOs).
He is in charge of warning the inhabitants of Earth about the possible impact of an asteroid or comet, as well as coordinating the response with the White House.
Johnson, who is so dedicated to tracking asteroids that there is one named after him, has revealed his agency’s step-by-step plan to notify the public about an imminent threat and prevent it from happening.
Keeping an eye on the sky
The Planetary Defense Coordination Office classifies an OCT as any object that comes within 30 million miles of Earth, about one-third the distance between Earth and the Sun.
Lindley Johnson is the senior program executive for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
According to the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, more than 34,000 near-Earth asteroids of all sizes have been detected since NASA began tracking them more than three decades ago.
Seven of them occurred in January of this year and 100 more were detected since January 2023.
Needless to say, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office does not raise the alarm every time it detects an OCT.
But it does keep track of every OCT it finds, according to Johnson.
“We definitely want to find them all before they find us,” he told Business Insider.
Here is the sequence of events that would happen if Johnson and his team needed to warn people about an NEO that poses a serious threat to Earth’s inhabitants:
Astronomers detect the rock that ends the world
For planetary defense, NASA partners with the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), a global network of astronomers charged with sounding the alarm.
If an IAWN member detects a dangerous OCT, they share the finding online so other scientists can confirm it is accurate and decide if it poses a danger.
“I don’t have a red phone on my desk or anything,” Johnson he told B.I.. “But we have formal procedures by which a serious impact would be reported.”
If IAWN members agree that the OCT truly threatens humanity, NASA will issue the warning call in several ways, depending on where it is predicted to strike.
This infographic from NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office shows the steps PDCO takes to keep Earth safe from catastrophic asteroid impacts.
If the asteroid threatens the US
For an asteroid that threatens to hit the United States, NASA will turn to the White House.
From there, the executive branch would determine how to notify the public, most likely through a combination of emergency broadcast strategies.
These would include preempting television programming with an official announcement and sending notifications to mobile phones through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.
These alert systems are already used on mobile phones to alert people about serious local crimes, as well as to warn of natural disasters.
For older Americans, in theory, the government could interrupt television broadcasts with public service announcements, to reach those who do not use cell phones.
If the asteroid threatens somewhere else
In the event that the asteroid does not hit the US – or it will, but is so large that it will also threaten other countries – IAWN would contact the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to warn others. countries. countries.
Judging the threat
The IAWN uses several criteria to evaluate whether an OCT poses a true threat to life on Earth.
A “potentially hazardous” asteroid measures more than 460 feet in diameter and passes near Earth.
In this case, “close” means one twentieth of the distance from the Earth to the sun.
These are the figures that NASA has published about the near-Earth objects that it has detected of all time, from last year and from January 2024.
Every near-Earth object that astronomers identify is placed in a database at the Minor Planet Center and tracked.
IAWN has identified more than 34,000 OCTs in its history, and NASA can predict their movement in about 100 years, Johnson said.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) slammed into an asteroid at more than 14,000 mph to knock it off course, a proof of concept to see if it could be done.
defending the planet
If an asteroid is considered an imminent threat, NASA has strategies on hand.
One of his most recent tricks involves hitting an asteroid with a spaceship to knock it off course.
In 2022, NASA tested its spacecraft called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).
This spacecraft tested NASA’s planetary defense strategy by crashing into an asteroid at 14,000 miles per hour, leaving a huge column of dust and rocks and altering its trajectory.
That asteroid did not threaten our planet, but in case it does, NASA has planned more missions like that to be prepared.
However, if the impact occurred in less than five years, the space agency would not be prepared to launch a diversion mission, Johnson said.
In that case, a missile or some other weapon can be deployed to destroy the asteroid or divert it from its course.
Fortunately, the IAWN has an eye on the status of OCTs, so it is highly unlikely that we would have less than five years’ warning before an asteroid hit the planet.