Incoming! How NASA and FEMA would respond to an asteroid threat

It’s a scary scenario: an asteroid headed for Earth, just four years away from slamming into our home planet. It may be too short a span to plan an asteroid-deflection mission, but it’s long enough to present very different challenges from those of a more typical crisis, like a hurricane or earthquake. NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came together Oct. 25 to plan a response to such a hypothetical event. In a “tabletop exercise,” a kind of ongoing simulation, the two agencies tested how they would work together to evaluate the threat, prevent panic and protect as many people as possible from the deadly collision. “It’s not a matter of if, but when, we will deal with such a situation,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s new associate administrator, said in a statement. “But unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning and mitigation.” The exercise, held in El Segundo, California, brought together representatives from NASA, FEMA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, the Air Force and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, JPL officials said in the statement. It was the third such exercise; previous ones had allowed for a deflection mission, but in this simulation, there was too little time for that type of response. “It is critical to exercise these kinds of low-probability but high-consequence disaster scenarios,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said in the statement. “By working through our emergency response plans now, we will be better prepared if and when we need to respond to such an event.”

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