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A Closer Look at NASA’s Planetary Defence

NASA Planetary Defence

As you may have seen from checking out our other blog posts, we have a definitive interest in all things military. Whether this is looking into the history of conflicts or exploring possibilities for new military equipment, chances are, it’ll be piquing our interest.

As humans, we love to be organised. Whether this is planning for World War III, nuclear weapons or even zombies; we’ve all got an inkling of an idea of what we’d do if one of these things happened. But what if the next big risk isn’t from the planet itself? Fortunately, NASA are taking care of that too with their Planetary Defence organisation. In this article, we take a closer look at what exactly this involves and what we should know about it.

What is Planetary Defence?

In short, Planetary Defence is the term used that covers all the capabilities we may need to detect and warn of possible collisions between asteroids or comets and the planet Earth. It also includes the ability to either prevent them or mitigate their effects. Three main factors are included in this summary:
- Discovering and tracking near-Earth objects that pose a possible risk of impacting with our planet.
- Understanding the objects’ trajectory, size, shape, mass, composition and rotation. This allows experts to determine the potential severity in the case of an impact event, understand the timings and the potential effects the event could have.
- Planning and implementing the necessary measures required to deflect or disrupt an object travelling along an impact course with Earth, or to mitigate the effects of an impact that cannot be stopped. These plans include the importance of preventing the loss of life and property, the evacuation procedures for a possible impact area and the movement of important infrastructure.

Astronaut around earth

Who’s in Charge?

Unsurprisingly, NASA is leading the charge for Earth’s planetary defence and so far they’ve done a pretty good job! Although it may not seem like it, Earth is constantly pelted by small space rocks, but as many of them are so small and insignificant, it’s unlikely we’ll ever seem them with our own eyes. NASA (thankfully) is completely aware of these collisions, but due to the low severity, takes no actions to mitigate the impact.

The process of detection starts with NASA using their sky survey telescopes to scan the sky and take multiple images of the same location four times, each five minutes apart. Typically, they would expect to see the four images look pretty much exactly the same, with stars and other celestial objects remaining in their same locations. However, if something is identified to be moving more than expected, it is noted down and checked against the list of known asteroids. If the rock appears on the list, then there’s no worry; however, if it is newly discovered, then it will need further examination.

Firstly, they look to understand the asteroid’s shape, size and trajectory to see if it poses an immediate threat. Assuming the asteroid is not on a direct collision path with Earth, NASA will look to amateur astrologers to provide their independent findings to support the investigation. With these in hand, they can refine their proposed trajectory and other information to have a clear picture of the risk posed by the rock.

If the discovered near Earth object (NEO) is headed towards an impact with the planet, NASA will look to implement a strategy to deflect the course of the NEO to ensure a safe bypassing of Earth. They could also look to disrupt the trajectory to minimise the risk if the former is not possible. Or, if the object cannot be stopped, then a plan will be put on place to protect life on Earth.

One of the slightly more worrying points addressed on the NASA website answers the question of whether it would be possible to shoot down an asteroid heading towards Earth. The answer to the question, unfortunately, is a no. Based on the size and speed of most NEOs, averaging 12 miles per second, it would not be possible to shoot down an asteroid in the last few hours or minutes as no known weapon has the capabilities. Perhaps this is why NASA focuses on the early detection of NEOs.

What Can You Do?

NASA relies on a large network of amateur astronomers all over the world to provide information to expand on their preliminary findings. If you’re a budding astronomer and want to get involved in the plans to support the planetary defence, then this may be you’re calling. All necessary information is available either on the NASA website or on the website for the Minor Planet Centre.

If you’re interested in rocks falling to Earth, then why not check out our article on these guns that are made from meteorite? Or, if you would prefer guns made from regular materials, you can check out our airsoft pistols here!

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