There’s a good chance that this week you’ll hear of the coming collision between Earth and an asteroid.
Given the propensity of modern media to replace accuracy with stridency and repetition, the story is likely to spawn rumor, panic and Heaven knows what else.
So: it’s not true. There’s no asteroid about to collide with our planet. Got that?
Here’s what’s happening. This week there is an international conference in Washington, D.C., called the “2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference,” held by the International Academy of Astronautics (the IAA in the conference name). The conference begins today.
It does sound like one of those movie international conferences that discover an imminent threat, and everyone wrings their hands until a wise and rickety old professor comes up with an audacious plan involving Bruce Willis, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Really.
Well, sort of not. “The bi-annual conference brings together world experts to discuss the threat to Earth posed by asteroids and comets and actions that might be taken to deflect a threatening object,” notes the conference website, which continues: “The conference will include a hypothetical NEO/Earth impact event scenario that will be part of the conference… Although this scenario is realistic in many ways, it is completely fictional and does NOT describe an actual potential asteroid impact.” NEO is near-earth object.
They did much the same thing in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
We can think of it as being like that tornado drill done every spring. Perfectly real except that there’s no tornado. This is the same thing, involving destruction of the Earth and a room full of scientists gathered to protect us (and, we hope, hatch some audacious plan with or without Bruce Willis). But there’s no actual asteroid that we know of.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes how the simulation will play out: “An asteroid is discovered on March 26, 2019, at magnitude 21.1, and confirmed the following day… Initial calculations indicate that the orbit of 2019 PDC [the name of the fictional asteroid] approaches well within 0.05 au of the Earth’s orbit.
“The day after 2019 PDC is discovered, JPL’s Sentry impact monitoring system, as well as ESA’s similar CLOMON system, both identify several future dates when this asteroid could potentially impact the Earth. Both systems agree that the most likely potential impact occurs on April 29, 2027 – over eight years away – but the probability of that impact is very low, about 1 chance in 50,000.
“Three weeks after discovery, when observations pause during full moon, the impact probability has risen to nearly 0.4 percent, or about 1 chance in 250… Very little is known about the asteroid’s physical properties… However, the asteroid’s mean size could be anywhere from roughly 100 meters to over 300 meters.
“Astronomers continue to track the asteroid almost every night, and the impact probability for 2027 continues to rise. As of April 29, 2019, the first day of the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference, the probability of impact has climbed to about 1%.”
Whatever shall we do?
That’s the question the conference seeks to answer.
This kind of thing has always been of interest to me. I wrote a published piece about it 15 years ago which gained some attention. My thesis was that from a policy point of view, there is no right answer, and all the wrong answers risk millions of lives.
The subject is scarcely new. But our systems of communication are new, and we’ve seen time and again how, in Mark Twain’s apocryphal words, “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
The European Space Agency’s Operations division will be live-tweeting the drill, as if it were real. All along, they will all be pointing out that this is just a test. Here’s the first tweet, from Friday:
“International news reports confirm: An #asteroid was discovered on 26 March 2019, and named #2019PDC by the @IAU_org's Minor Planet Center located in Cambridge, Mass, USA #FICTIONALEVENT #PlanetaryDefense”
The “#FICTIONALEVENT” tag is a nice touch. Is it enough?
We should note that on Oct. 30, 1938, the Mercury Theater radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” was accompanied by frequent announcements that this was a work of fiction and was not really happening. Those announcements did not entirely stem the widespread panic the broadcast produced.
Today, things move faster, via the absurd Twitter and Facebook, the latter which apparently exists to allow people to give voice to their inner moron. Somebody, somewhere, is going to think the phony asteroid business is real. The alarm will be shouted to the universe of followers and “friends.”
As I read the literature leading up to this test, which begins today, I am not entirely confident that the planners are all that interested in having ordinary people know that it’s just a test. Witness this from a NASA news release: “The point is to investigate how NEO observers, space agency officials, emergency managers, decision makers and citizens might respond to an actual impact prediction and evolving information.”
Did you notice the word “citizens”? Part of what they’re trying to learn is what people would do upon learning that they may soon be squashed into atoms. This requires that people behave as if they were soon to be, yes, squashed into atoms. I suppose it does no harm to think about such a thing. It might be good for us, at least as applies to our immortal souls. But still.
Imagine Athens with everyone running around like chickens with their heads cut off, behaving with wild abandon, probably getting drunk and doing undignified things in public, playing music as loud as possible, shouting and carrying on as if the world were about to end.
Oh, wait. Never mind. Bad example.
The point is, we are supposed to be part of the experiment, though I have no idea how this is to manifest itself, especially when it is only a test.
Which you now know it is.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.