NASA War-Games Deadly Asteroid Impact, Produces Terrifying Results

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by Romolo Tavani via Getty Images)

Did you know that meteoroids hit Earth virtually every day? Thankfully, these fragments of asteroids and comets are so small that they typically burst when connecting with our atmosphere, causing no damage at all.

That said, NASA is aware of far larger space debris, some spanning hundreds of miles in diameter. The largest known asteroid floating around the vacuum of space is Ceres, a rock roughly the size of Alaska that rotates around the sun every 1,678 days.

In truth, however, “float” is a far too gentle a descriptor. These massive space rocks actually hurtle between stars and planets at speeds exceeding 15 miles per second. And if one of these rocks should collide with the Earth, it wouldn’t simply burst into harmless pieces. It would explode and produce the force of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb, leveling cities and killing thousands in an instant – and that’s if it’s relatively small.

Should Ceres collide with Earth, for example, the impact would rip the Earth’s crust from its core 6 miles deep, the shockwaves rippling across the entire planet leaving nothing but a smoldering ball of fire and melted rock in their wake. Thankfully, Ceres never comes closer than 1.5 AU (around 140 million miles) from Earth, making this scenario an impossibility.

Potentially hazardous objects (PHO) capable of causing major destruction upon impact, however, aren’t out of the question at all. And unfortunately, oil drillers destroying a deadly asteroid with a nuclear bomb is a proven theory only within the bounds of celluloid.

NASA Simulates Devastating Asteroid Impact in North Carolina

Without grizzled oil driller Harry Stamper to lean on, what do we do? Well, NASA is hard at work answering that very question.

Back in August, they completed a simulation of a deadly asteroid impact in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the airburst leaving the city and surrounding area in ruins. The results of this war game were clear: we are not ready for such an event.

It’s some consolation that the simulation wasn’t designed with a winnable event in mind. “We designed it to fall right into the gap in our capabilities,” Emma Rainey, one of the simulation’s creators, told Scientific American. “The participants could do nothing to prevent the impact.”

Instead, the exercise’s main goal was to test the response of government and scientific networks. “We want to see how effective operations and communications are between U.S. government agencies and the other organizations that would be involved, and then identify shortcomings,” explained Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA.

Essentially, the simulation showed that the United States is severely ill-equipped to intercept asteroids. To make matters worse, we don’t have an effective method of detecting them, either. Finally, false rumors among the public would likely have a devastating effect on life-saving efforts.

“Misinformation is not going away,” says Angela Stickle, a scientist who helped design the exercise. “We put it into the simulation because we wanted feedback on how to counteract it.”