How an asteroid almost hit Earth and shocked the United Nations

Spurred on by a near miss, the world has built a warning system to detect asteroids on their way to Earth. But it’s not clear who would decide what to do.

On the morning of February 15, 2013, a research team in central Europe prepared its final recommendations to a United Nations subcommittee on setting up an international response mechanism to prepare for an asteroid impact on Earth. The point home would be a presentation from the US space agency NASA showing that asteroid “2012 DA14” would pass within 17,700 miles of Earth that same afternoon — closer than the orbit of meteorological and communications satellites.

But the point would have been made well before NASA’s presentation: Later that morning, another asteroid exploded 30 kilometers above Chelyabinsk in Russia. The shock wave knocked down walls, blew out windows and injured more than… 1600 people† No one knew the asteroid was coming.

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The atmosphere protects the Earth from asteroids 30 meters or smaller – usually. The one that exploded over Chelyabinsk had a diameter of 14 to 17 meters. Thanks to the small entry angle and the high speed of 19 kilometers per second relative to the Earth, the asteroid was able to jump through it.

The surprising appearance of this asteroid is far from unique. Asteroid “2015 HD1” was discovered by NASA’s Mt Lemmon Survey Telescope on April 18, 2015, three days before its closest approach to Earth at 73,385 kilometers. If it had been on track to hit Earth, there would have been no time for deflection or disturbance. Those in the impact zone alone could have controlled the consequences.

The chances of an asteroid hitting Earth are very slim, but if it did, the damage could be catastrophic. The consequences would far exceed the death, injury and material destruction likely to follow a terrestrial natural disaster. But asteroid impacts are the only disaster that the world community can avoid – if only it has been warned enough.

The explosion over Chelyabinsk was a clear warning and it was heeded. The Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space (UN COPUOS) accepted the research team’s recommendations, and in December 2013, the UN General Assembly welcomed them “with satisfaction”. An international response mechanism was soon established to predict asteroid impacts.

The International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) was founded in January 2014. The Minor Planet Centerportion of the International Astronomical Union, host of the inaugural meeting in the US Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

IAWN membership includes 40 professional and amateur observatories from around the world who have signed a letter of intent to participate in IAWN. Each observatory covers its own operating costs. Any astronomer, whether part of IAWN or not, who detects a new asteroid reports it to the Minor Planet Center, which makes a quick but accurate calculation of the asteroid’s probability of hitting Earth.

The center immediately sends the report to NASA’s Center for Research on Objects Near Earth at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and to the Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) research Center in Frascati, Italy, where the probability of an impact over the next 100 years is calculated in different ways. The results will be compared and posted on the respective agency websites, and IAWN will be notified.

The Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) was established in February 2014. Its main purpose is to prepare for an international response to a NEO threat by exchanging information, developing collaborative research options and conducting NEO threat mitigation planning activities. SMPAG has created scenarios for combinations of asteroids of different sizes, different impact areas and other parameters. If an asteroid were detected that could hit Earth, IAWN would alert SMPAG and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and inform the news media.

The first practical step any space agency would take would be to prepare its government to approve all necessary measures. Here SMPAG’s scenarios can save crucial time. Preliminary calculations about an estimated match with the incoming asteroid could save two to three years in selecting the deflection or perturbation to perform. At the same time, UNOOSA would inform all governments to facilitate coordination of an international response.

The technicalities of an international response to the threat of an asteroid impact are well coordinated between IAWN’s astronomical observatories, which search for and characterize asteroids, and SMPAG’s space agencies, which could deflect or disrupt them. The gaps in Earth’s planetary defenses lie in the decision-making process.

Permission is needed from the governments in the impact zone and the governments whose space agencies can conduct the missions before a deflection mission can be launched. The fate of the planet may depend on the decision, which may need to be made quickly. But since every mission always has a chance of failure, this will be a political, economic and humanitarian decision – and it may take some time. There is as yet no clear hierarchy or decision-making process. There will likely be several groups and nations involved, so a clearly defined process may never exist.

Both IAWN and SMPAG present annual briefings on their work to the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, raising policy makers’ awareness of the issues involved in making a decision, as well as the knowledge base of their own scientists. One of the largest UN committees, COPUOS and its subcommittees, had 100 member states as of December 2021.

In 2029, the asteroid Apophis will pass within a radius of 31,600 kilometers from Earth. Humanity is prepared for this asteroid. The trajectory is clear, it has been mapped and it has been determined that it has a negligible risk of impact. It is the ones the Earth has not seen that are yet to be prepared.

Originally published under Creative Commons by means of 360 info™.


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Peter Fray

Peter Fray
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