Future Concepts and Transformation Division (AF/A8XC) hosted a Natural Impact Event Interagency Planning Exercise, 4 Dec 2008, in Alexandria, Virginia. Twenty Seven Subject Matter Experts from across US Government, including DOD, DOE, DOS, DHS, NASA, and NSC participated in a single day tabletop exercise to explore “whole of government” response to an impending asteroid strike.
The specific scenario involved a mythical asteroid, “2008 Innoculatus.” It was a binary asteroid consisting of a 270m rocky rubble pile projected to strike the Gulf of Guinea and a 50m metallic companion asteroid projected to strike in the National Capital Region (NCR). The scenario was selected to maximize exposure to the diversity of threat (variation in size, composition, land/water strike), stress both national and international notification, and provide useful pre-planning should an actual effort need to be mounted against the asteroid Apophis when it has a small probability to pass through a gravitational keyhole in 2029 and perhaps return to strike the Earth seven years later in 2036.
Players were broken into two teams. The first team focused on disaster response and was told the asteroid was discovered 72 hrs from impact. The second team focused on deflection/mitigation was told the asteroid had been discovered seven years from impact, and to design a “strawman” deflection plan using existing capabilities.
The major insights are summarized below (for an expanded discussion, see section 6):
While a number of useful analogs exist, as well as procedures that could be used or adapted, at the present time they have not been so adapted, and attempts to do so in the moment are likely to be much less successful than advance preparation.
Players suggested that the scenario was mature enough, interesting and compelling enough for elevation to higher levels of visibility and increased levels of detailed examination. Players suggested that National Planning Scenarios need to include a NEO impact as one of the scenarios. Players recommended incorporation of a NEO impact scenario into a number of formal planning exercises.
Players consistently remarked that the complexities and overlapping nature of this contingency required advance delineation of responsibilities, formalization of the notification process, and clarification of authorities and chains of command, including authorities for delegation and supported/supporting relationships. Players thought it was important to think through and document this prior to any actual NEO emergency.
No obvious consensus emerged on which agency should have lead for a deflection effort. Expertise is widely distributed across US government agencies. Players held widely divergent views in terms of organizational equities whose resolution will require a policy decision at a higher level. In the absence of policy guidance, players felt an actual deflection attempt would likely mirror the Manhattan Project
None of our command centers to support decision makers have the necessary tools to make quick assessments. Players expressed a need for a “National Decision Support System” for natural impact scenarios and events. Such a system would need to tighten up the federated nature of impact prediction and impact effects prediction, integrating models for impact location and uncertainty prediction, kinetic effects prediction, plume, and tsunami effects, and feed evacuation planning models
Players highlighted the fact that current models inadequately address several effects likely to significantly affect accurate damage / effect estimates. These include the effect of blast plumes on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, electromagnetic effects that could affect electrical power infrastructure, seismic effects, effect of terrain on blast dissipation and focusing, coupling of airblast to tsunami response, and atmospheric distribution/dispersion of hazardous materials.
The NEO detection community conducts its work openly using Internet communications and Webbased datasets, so it is very likely that information on a new discovery of high interest will be available to the public before NASA can complete adequate verification and validation of potential impact and provide a news release, or even speed notification to the POTUS and appropriate agencies.
States and local authorities require a certain lead time in order to plan and implement evacuation, and the error ellipse under current capabilities is not likely to adequately constrain the possibilities to allow effective decisions.
Given the concern of what the public might know before it even gets to leadership, there needs to be a plan to put forward a single authoritative voice backed up with tools that clearly present information to support state and local authorities and reduce the chance of panic and counterproductive movement.
In this scenario, given the short lead time (less than a decade), players chose to go with a solution they felt was low mass, provided high energy density for deflection, leveraged existing national capabilities, and had comparatively high technological readiness level (TRL). Some players suggested a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between NASA, DOE and DOS may be necessary to preserve the required capabilities and infrastructure to execute the nuclear option.