How an Asteroid Could Destroy the World Before Impact
In the Event of a Collision, Humanity Would Not Fare Well
It’s May 2014, just over a year after an asteroid shook Chelyabinsk, and the folks at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have a little problem.
There’s another one on the way.
It seems that the boys over at NASA have spotted this 300-yard-wide asteroid, called 2014 TTX, that’s in an orbit that crosses Earth’s path. Initially the Sentry impact-monitoring system at JPL gave this asteroid just the teensiest-weensiest little chance—about 1-in-1 million—of smacking into the Earth seven years from now, in the year 2021. But now, with more observations of the asteroid coming in, those odds are getting shorter. Over the next few weeks the odds go up to 1-in-500, then 1-in-100. It’s still a pretty long shot, only a 1 percent chance of impact, but it’s enough to put this asteroid on the FEMA radar. As the federal agency that will be responsible for pre- and post-impact disaster measures in the unlikely event of an impact, FEMA will have to keep an eye on this one—just in case.
But then the odds of an impact get better—or rather, worse.
In August 2014 the impact odds are estimated at 6 percent—and it’s time to start taking this thing seriously. Sure, there’s still a 94 percent chance that it won’t hit Earth. But again, this asteroid is about 300 yards wide, and if it hits Earth it’s going to release about 700 megatons worth of energy—almost 50 times more than the one that blasted out a huge chunk of Siberian forest back in 1908. An air blast or ground impact of that magnitude could damage or destroy everything in an area of several hundred square miles. It wouldn’t be an extinction-level event, but if it hit a populated area it would be a catastrophe unprecedented in recorded human history.
The White House and the congressional leadership have already been informed, and naturally the politicians’ first instinct is to dither. In briefings with astronomers and NASA officials, they demand to know how the egghead scientists can be so sure there’s even a 6 percent chance that this damn thing is going to hit Earth seven long years from now. After all, they say, you boys have been wrong before. Remember that time back in 2004, when you said there was a 3 percent chance that an asteroid—what’s its name? . . . Apophis?—was going to hit Earth in 2029 and got everybody all excited? And then later you came back and told us, Oops, there’s really a zero chance that Apophis is going to hit. So why should we believe you now? The scientists try to explain the subtleties and uncertainties involved in calculating the orbital characteristics of newly discovered asteroids, but it’s like trying to explain that just because it’s been an unusually cold winter it doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as global warming. Some people don’t want to listen.
Still, while the politicians aren’t willing to spend significant money on the problem, they want more information. So now a host of federal and international agencies get together to figure out what to do. NASA, Department of Defense (DOD), State Department, the European Space Agency, the newly formed International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), and the international Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG)—they all trade information on the asteroid deflection capabilities and methods of various nations. FEMA starts drawing up contingency plans for evacuations, delivery of emergency supplies, and so on—again, just in case. The impact, if it comes, is still more than six years away.
Meanwhile, though, the impact probability keeps going up. By February 2015, it’s at 35 percent, and NASA has come up with a “risk corridor” projection of where on Earth it might impact. The risk corridor is a narrow line that stretches halfway around the globe, over Africa, the Atlantic, the American Southwest, California and into the Pacific. The asteroid could strike anywhere along that line, but the NASA scientists can’t say exactly where. They don’t have enough information yet.
Of course, there’s been no way to keep this thing secret. Asteroid 2014 TTX was listed on the JPL Sentry risk table as soon as it was discovered, with the data on its orbit available to anyone with a computer; any backyard astronomer can download programs to compute the impact risks. Also, the follow-up observations required to further refine the asteroid’s orbit are performed by dozens, even hundreds of professional and amateur astronomers around the globe—and when it comes to sharing information, astronomers are notorious blabbermouths.
So the story is out there, and the news media are going nuts. Sure, some of the coverage is responsible, with clear explanations about the risk level, possible deflection methods, and so on. But the tabloids are having a field day: KILLER ASTEROID TO HIT EARTH IN 2021! Social media and the Internet are even worse, with videos depicting an asteroid the size of Pluto smashing into the Earth and conspiracy theorists claiming it’s all a government plot to—well, to do something nefarious. Harried NASA and FEMA public affairs spokespeople try to get the facts out, but it’s an uphill climb. The public doesn’t know what to believe.
But by early 2016 there’s no doubt. NASA now puts the impact probability at 100 percent, and it has shortened the risk corridor.
According to their calculations, in September 2021, asteroid 2014 TTX is going to hit somewhere along a line over the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It’s time to knock this thing out of its orbit and save a good chunk of America from destruction.
But how? We can’t launch existing ICBMs or anti-ballistic missile devices at it. They don’t have the lift or the guidance systems necessary to hit an asteroid in deep space. Because of funding limitations, NASA hasn’t been able to fully design—much less build and test—a spacecraft capable of delivering a deflecting payload to an asteroid. That DART mission designed to do a test-deflection on the tiny moon circling around asteroid Didymos? That’s barely on the drawing boards by this time. To build the necessary spacecraft they’ll basically have to start from scratch.
And what kind of payload will that spacecraft deliver? For months the planners at NASA and DoD and other agencies have been arguing over whether to use a nuclear warhead or kinetic impactors to deflect the asteroid. A nuclear detonation would offer the biggest deflection push, but it’s controversial. According to a NASA survey, a majority of the American general public supports the use of nuclear weapons against the asteroid. But it’s bitterly opposed by some scientists and most environmental groups, as well as much of the establishment press. Reporters want to know, What if the nuke blows up on the launch pad? Or in the atmosphere? What if the nuclear-weapon-bearing rocket goes haywire and smashes into New York City? The pro-nuclear-option scientists and engineers try to explain that none of these things will happen, but politically that option won’t fly.
So the decision is to go kinetic. U.S. agencies—principally the Air Force—and the European Space Agency each design and build three kinetic impactor spacecraft, for a total of six. The hope is that at least two of them will hit the asteroid with enough force to deflect it. The effort costs billions of dollars, but it’s a crash program, with the highest national priority.
Still, it takes two years to prepare the missions. It’s made even more difficult by the fact that scientists really don’t have a good idea of what the asteroid is made of, or even its precise size, both of which are critical factors in planning a deflection mission. There isn’t time to design, build and launch a probe to examine 2014 TTX up close.
In August 2018 the six kinetic impactor spacecraft are launched, but three of them fail, either at launch or en route to the asteroid. The remaining three are believed to have hit the asteroid on March 1, 2019, but scientists can’t say for sure. At that point in its orbit the asteroid is not visible from Earth, and again, there wasn’t time to send up an observation space vehicle to monitor the effect of the kinetic impacts. We have to wait and see if the impactors diverted the asteroid.
Nine months later, in December 2019, asteroid 2014 TTX comes back into Earth’s view and we have the answer. The kinetic impactors have deflected a major portion of the asteroid off its Earth-impacting orbit. But the impactors also knocked off a 50-yard-wide chunk of the asteroid—and that large fragment could possibly still hit Earth in 2021. We won’t know for certain until the mini-asteroid gets closer and we can get more observations.
So again it’s a waiting game. In the meantime, senior officials from NASA and other agencies are hauled into congressional hearings, where congresspeople demand to know why the mission failed, or at least partially failed. Billions of taxpayer dollars spent, and a piece of that damned thing is still coming at us? The NASA officials try in vain to explain the inherent technical difficulties in deflecting a small object moving at high speed when it’s millions and millions of miles away, especially when you have a short time to design and launch the mission. They do not point out that if Congress hadn’t been so tight-fisted with funding in previous years, NASA could have had the capability to spot 2014 TTX further in advance, and could have had the deflection technology already in place to deal with the asteroid instead of depending on an untested program.
Now just about everybody wants to nuke this thing and be done with it. The White House orders a new crash program to destroy the asteroid, this time with nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. We have plenty of nuclear weapons available, but there is no existing launch capability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the asteroid when it’s still far away from Earth—and there’s not enough time to build one. The Earth has shot its currently available deep-space-capable-rocket wad with the six kinetic impactor launches. If the asteroid fragment is heading for us, we’ll just have to take the hit.
And the asteroid is definitely heading for us. In May 2021 NASA announces there is a 100 percent certainty that four months from now, just after noon on September 5, the 50-yard-wide asteroid fragment will impact somewhere along a 600-mile-long, 20-mile-wide risk corridor that begins in the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans, passes over Houston, Texas, and ends just northwest of Austin.
True, the impact of the fragment will not pack the destructive punch that the larger 2014 TTX would have had—but it’s still going to be bad. The asteroid fragment will be traveling at a speed of 35,000 miles per hour and will release the energy equivalent of ten megatons of TNT—roughly the equivalent of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. If it hits the Gulf of Mexico it will send a tsunami up to ten feet high ten miles inland across Texas and Louisiana. If it hits the ground it will wipe out everything within a three-mile radius and cause major destruction several miles farther out. In the more likely event that it explodes in the air, the damage will be spread over an even wider area. The explosion and heat will damage or destroy buildings over an area of hundreds of square miles—and if they don’t get out of the way, a lot of people are going to die.
In fact, even before it hits, the asteroid is already doing damage. As you might expect, housing and other property values plummet within the risk corridor. Who’s going to buy a home or invest in a business in Austin or Houston when there’s a chance that in a few months there won’t even be an Austin or a Houston anymore? Businesses shut down, people are out of work. Wealthy people can afford to relocate, but most people can’t. There’s a flurry of phony “asteroid insurance” scams, and people are demanding to know “Who can I sue?”
There’s more. The Texas Gulf Coast area accounts for a quarter of the U.S. oil refining capacity, and the Gulf itself is dotted with oil well platforms, so in expectation of the impact disruption, gas and oil prices rise dramatically. In response, the White House orders a freeze on gas prices nationwide, which causes an artificial gas shortage and long lines at the pumps. The Texas governor also freezes prices within the impact zone, but there’s widespread price gouging and growing shortages of food, water, and other supplies. FEMA starts making evacuation plans and pre-positioning disaster relief supplies.
Then, a week before the impact, based on radar observations from the Goldstone and Arecibo observatories, NASA is able to draw a bull’s-eye on the exact spot where the asteroid is going to hit. It’s going to hit the city of Pasadena, a working-class suburb of Houston, home to some 150,000 people. The Texas governor has already activated the Texas National Guard, and working with FEMA he orders mandatory evacuations from a wide area around Pasadena, involving hundreds of thousands of people. But it’s like evacuating in the face of a hurricane. Most people wait until the last minute, hoping the hurricane will veer off course and hit someplace else; despite what they’ve been told by public officials, they don’t understand that asteroids don’t work that way. So when they finally do leave, the roads and highways are jammed.
And as with hurricanes, some people flatly refuse to go. FEMA officially calls this the “public non-observance of instructions” problem. Hundreds, even thousands of people simply don’t believe the government, or are unwilling to abandon their homes and property. Others see the asteroid as God’s will, the beginning of the end of the world. Churches are filled up; so are the bars. Police and the National Guard can’t force the hold-outs to go, because all emergency responders have to evacuate the impact zone as well.
Finally, on September 5, seven years after asteroid 2014 TTX was discovered, after all the dithering and debate and partially failed efforts to stop it, the 50-yard-wide space rock screams into the atmosphere in a fireball brighter than the Sun. And a few seconds later—goodbye, Pasadena.
From Fire in the Sky by Gordon Dillow. Copyright © 2019 by Gordon Dillow. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.