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NASA and FEMA are preparing to respond if a giant asteroid hits Los Angeles

Photograph: Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

When we think of ways this city might come crumbling down, there are earthquakes of course, maybe something related to the epic drought, or possibly some kind of traffic jam on the freeway that becomes so big and all-encompassing that we all just fall into a void. What we hadn’t really thought of was a 330-foot asteroid slamming into Downtown L.A.—but, it turns out, that is exactly the scenario that NASA and FEMA are currently running in preparation drills.

The New York Times reports that the agencies as well as other federal government bodies have been conducting what is comfortingly termed a “planetary protection exercise” to work out what they might do if, hypothetically, in 2020 a giant ball of space rock set its sights on us here on Earth. Specifically, Los Angeles.

This scenario, played out for officials by a team from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, would result in the leveling of any structure in a 30-mile radius of the impact and require a mass evacuation of the city. Even if all went to plan and they were given an estimated four-year window of warning (hence the exercise above assuming a 2020 crash), they still assume tens of thousands of casualties. Just, you know, in case you didn’t have enough to worry about these days.

Oh, and by the way, the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies has a list of 659 asteroids that could potentially hit Earth someday, and other experts in the field think they haven’t even identified one percent of what’s out there relatively close to our home planet. 

Engineers think that the best plan if we do find an asteroid on a collision course is to be ready with a specialized spacecraft designed to ram into the object before it gets too close and knock it off course so it can peacefully glide by. That’s where simulations like this come in. Because, while there is no threat to our planet identified right now, if any of those 659 asteroids—or the thousands of other ones out there that NASA knows probably exist but haven’t been pinned down yet—did start hurtling our way, it would take about two years just to build that deflector machine and another year of it flying through space before it hit the target. So, they say, you want to start thinking about how to solve the problem long before it becomes an urgent situation.

For now, though, you’re probably okay. Or so we think.



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