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2013 Tabletop Exercise

Tabletop Exercise for Short Warning Near Earth Object Impact Event

Summary Report for NASA HQ SMD Planetary Sciences Division NEO Program Office

August 19,2013

Full Report - PDF format

Executive Summary

A table-top exercise was conducted at the Headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C., on April 3, 2013. A primary goal of the exercise was to acquaint FEMA with the nature of an asteroid or comet impact and how a warning of an impact might evolve if the threatening object was detected a short time prior to possible impact.

The scenario selected was that a Near Earth Object1 (NEO), an asteroid in this case, as large as 100 meters in diameter was discovered approximately one month before it might impact. The initial probability of impact was about 10%, or based on the initial tracking data, there was 90% likelihood that the object would not strike Earth. As more tracking data was obtained, the object’s orbit was refined, resulting in certain impact being predicted two weeks prior to the projected impact date. At that time, the locations of possible impact points extended roughly from Pittsburg, PA, to the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, which included possible impact in the neighborhood of Washington. D.C. Final orbit measurements in the last two weeks placed the most likely impact as being in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Virginia/North Carolina coastline.

As the threat evolved, the exercise team provided estimates of the type of disaster that might result from the impact of an object this size and highlighted possible effects of an airburst, similar to that experienced in Chelyabinsk, Russia, and of a ground or ocean impact. The team also examined the possibility of launching a spacecraft to deflect or disrupt (fragment) the oncoming object and eventually concluded that it was simply not possible to fabricate and launch a spacecraft in the short time available, even if such a task was undertaken at the highest national priority.

Issues discussed during the exercise included:

There were three main recommendations from the exercise:

  1. Improve tools for communications on the nature and evolution of NEO threats to make it more clear to the public and decision makers how an actual threat might evolve. The communications tools should include an authoritative website that would explain orbit position uncertainty and other terms used in describing a threat, discuss options that are available for deflecting or disrupting a threatening object, and describe the nature of an impact disaster. This same website would be frequently updated with relevant information in the event of an actual impact warning.

  2. Develop a national response plan outlining actions that should be taken to prepare a deflection or disruption mission/campaign and activate preparations for disaster mitigation. The plan would include links to international disaster mitigation organizations and space agencies that might be involved in a deflection/disruption campaign.

  3. Explore establishment of a FEMA-led NEO Impact Working Group to guide the evolution of disaster response measures and provide recommendations on future exercises and specific warnings for this scenario. This group would:

    1. Develop materials for an authoritative website on issues related to an impact warning and disaster

    2. Develop and maintain a “Rolodex” of key players—a list of who has what capability to support key information requests, tools the science team community has to support information needs, etc.

    3. Design and conduct two follow-on tabletop exercises. The first would exercise an actual message format via the National Warning Systems in order for all concerned to learn differences between a man-made object returning from earth orbit (routine, happens every day) and a NEO impact, which has a low probability of occurrence, but extremely high consequences based on size, compositions, velocity, etc. The second would involve the Federal Interagency (Whole of Government), perhaps using the Emergency Support Functions Leadership Group, and “role players” might be designated to actually exercise the national level decisions which may have to be made.