Global Experts Convene During Planetary Defense Conference to Safeguard Earth


Left: Matt Daniels, Assistant Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for Space Security & Special Projects, briefs PDC participants on the newly released 2023 NEO Strategy and Action Plan for Planetary Defense; Center: NASA Planetary Defense Officer, Lindley Johnson, provides an update on the status of projects in NASA’s Planetary Defense program; Right: Kelly Fast, NASA’s NEO Object Observations Program Manager and Coordinating Officer for the International Asteroid Warning Network speaks to the importance of international collaboration.

In a world where many global challenges exist, finding ways to respond to an as yet undiscovered asteroid that might one day impact Earth could seem like a lesser priority. While it is true there are currently no known asteroids of significant size on a collision trajectory with Earth, an asteroid impact with our planet has potential for catastrophic damage and could change the course of civilization as we know it. Equipped with this understanding, Planetary Defense experts around the globe convened last week in Vienna, Austria, for the 8th IAA Planetary Defense Conference (PDC) to discuss ongoing efforts focused on addressing the asteroid impact hazard.

During the conference, which occurred from April 3 – 7 and was hosted by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UN-OOSA), scientists, engineers, global thought leaders, policymakers, government officials, and other Planetary Defense experts discussed what their respective stakeholders were doing to better understand how humanity might respond if an asteroid or comet, any near-Earth object (NEO), headed our way were ever discovered. Additionally, the PDC provided the Planetary Defense community the unique opportunity to engage directly with national policy makers to discuss the latest advancements in humanity’s capability to find, track, and deflect potentially hazardous NEOs. Through bringing the world’s Planetary Defenders together, the PDC also allowed attendees to share their respective knowledge and expertise with one another to help encourage coordination among global asteroid impact mitigation. This knowledge sharing occurred through a series of panels and sessions, each with their own respective objectives and focus.

One such panel, which focused on disaster preparedness, allowed PDC attendees to hear directly from the Deputy Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on how they work with local and national government to coordinate response to emergency events and what information would be needed from the Planetary Defense community about an impending asteroid impact. Through these conversations, nations can learn best practices from one another and work toward creating a global strategy to respond to an actual impact threat if ever necessary. During the PDC, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) also released the updated National Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan for Near-Earth Objects and Planetary Defense, which establishes six key US Government goals for the next ten years to ensure the Nation is well better equipped to mitigate potentially hazardous NEO impacts. NASA is planning to soon release its own complementary PD strategy to ensure the agency is working toward its goals in Planetary Defense for the next decade.

NASA Program Scientist Michael Kelley briefs PDC members on lessons learned from an international campaign to observe near-Earth asteroid Apophis during its 2021 close approach with Earth.

Conference attendees also had the opportunity to participate in a brief asteroid impact tabletop exercise to simulate how information would unfold in the years and months leading to an actual asteroid impact event. The exercise included representatives from two collaborative bodies recommended in 2014 by the United Nations and now very active within the Planetary Defense community: The International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG). NEO impacts are a global hazard that require global cooperation and international collaboration through IAWN and SMPAG, and events like the PDC are key to fostering that cooperation.

Ultimately, preventing an asteroid impact with Earth and avoiding a catastrophic natural disaster poses a complex problem that requires a multidisciplinary approach. Additionally, if a NEO were headed toward Earth, its devastation would not recognize national borders or politics. International coordination is at the heart of Planetary Defense, and conferences like the PDC provide an invaluable opportunity for experts around the world to come together, share their knowledge, and unite as one under the common goal of safeguarding Earth from asteroid impacts for generations to come.

Group photo of some of the in-person attendees of the 8th International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference. Credit: Max Alexander

See the program and watch videos of the PDC:

Learn more about NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office

Keep up to date on NASA’s Planetary Defense efforts by following Asteroid Watch on twitter

Remembering the Chelyabinsk Impact 10 Years Ago, and Looking to the Future

Asteroid “Chelyabinsk 2013” explodes over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2013. Credit: The Planetary Society/YouTube.

On Feb. 15, 2013, the people of Chelyabinsk, Russia, experienced a shocking event, and yet it was a small fraction of the devastation an asteroid on a collision course with Earth could yield. As NASA’s Planetary Defense experts reflect on the Chelyabinsk impact 10 years ago, they also look forward to the future and all that the agency has since accomplished in the field of Planetary Defense.

Harmless meteoroids, and sometimes small asteroids, impact our planet’s atmosphere daily. When they do, they disintegrate and create meteors or “shooting stars” and sometimes bright fireballs or bolides. Such was the case on Feb. 12 when a very small asteroid impacted Earth’s atmosphere over Northern France soon after discovery, resulting in a spectacular light show for local onlookers. Much more rarely, a larger asteroid that is still too small to reach the ground intact, yet large enough to release considerable energy when it disintegrates, can do significant damage to the ground. On Feb. 15, 2013, one such bolide event garnered international attention when a house-sized asteroid impacted Earth’s atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, at a speed of eleven miles per second and exploded 14 miles above the ground. The explosion was equivalent to 440,000 tons of TNT, and the resulting air blast blew out windows over 200 square miles, damaged buildings, and injured over 1,600 people – mostly due to broken glass. Due to the asteroid’s approach from the daytime sky, it was not detected prior to impact, serving as a reminder that while there are no known asteroid threats to Earth for the next century, an Earth impact by an unknown asteroid could occur at any time.

Coincidentally, negotiations sponsored by the United Nations were finalizing formal recommendations for the establishment of Planetary Defense-related international collaborations – the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) – when the Chelyabinsk impact occurred. Since then, NASA established the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) in 2016 to oversee and coordinate the agency’s ongoing mission of Planetary Defense. This includes acting as a national representative at international Planetary Defense-related caucuses and forums, such as IAWN and SMPAG, and playing a leading role in coordinating U.S. government planning for response to an actual asteroid impact threat if one were ever discovered. The PDCO also funds observatories around the world through NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program to find and characterize NEOs – asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of Earth – with a particular focus on finding asteroids 460 feet (140 meters) and larger that represent the most severe impact risks to Earth. To help accelerate its ability to find potentially hazardous NEOs, NASA is also actively developing the agency’s NEO Surveyor mission, which is designed to finish discovery of 90 percent of asteroids 140 meters in size or larger that can come near Earth within a decade of being launched.

In 2022, working together with the Italian Space Agency, NASA’s  Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission successfully demonstrated the world’s first-ever test for deflecting an asteroid’s orbit. Launched in 2021, DART successfully collided with a known asteroid – which posed no impact threat to Earth – demonstrating one method of asteroid deflection technology using a kinetic impactor spacecraft. Since DART’s impact, Planetary Defense experts have been continuing to analyze data returned from the mission to better understand its demonstrated effects on the asteroid, which contributes to the understanding of how a kinetic impactor spacecraft could be used to address an asteroid impact threat in the future if the need ever arose.

The Chelyabinsk impact was a spark that ignited global conversation in Planetary Defense, and much progress in the field has occurred since then. However, there is still more work to be done, and NASA is actively at the forefront. In addition to building NASA’s NEO Surveyor to find the rest of the population of asteroids that could pose a hazard to Earth, the agency is considering a “rapid response reconnaissance” capability to be able to quickly obtain a more detailed characterization of a hazardous asteroid once it is discovered. NASA is also considering sending out a reconnaissance spacecraft to study an asteroid making a close approach to Earth in 2029.

“A collision of a NEO with Earth is the only natural disaster we now know how humanity could completely prevent” said NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson. “We must keep searching for what we know is still out there, and we must continue to research and test Planetary Defense technologies and capabilities that could one day protect our planet’s inhabitants from a devastating event.”

Learn more about NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office

Keep up to date on NASA’s Planetary Defense efforts by following Asteroid Watch on twitter