Infrastructure & Technology

Keeping America Safe: Addressing the Threat of Near-Earth Object Impacts

3 minute read

When President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Order to revive the National Space Council last June, he signaled to the world that this Administration is committed to remaining the global leader in outer space. Every day, scientists at NASA and across the Federal Government are working to advance and extend human exploration of the cosmos—by returning to the Moon and traveling beyond—while also keeping humans on Earth safe from asteroids and comets that might intersect Earth’s orbit.

While astronomers find these near-Earth objects with some regularity, the probability of colliding with one large enough to cause devastation in this century is extremely low. The United States has for years been proactively preparing for the possibility of this threat, developing telescopes and other technologies to find potentially hazardous asteroids and comets. Today, the Trump Administration released a National plan for reducing the risk of near-Earth object impacts. This follows the Administration’s 2018 National Strategy for Space, which recognizes the threat and calls for mitigation efforts.

The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan identifies a path to increased National preparedness across five strategic goals:

  1. Characterize the threat. Telescopes and other instruments can detect and track potential threats, and provide information about their size and makeup. Capability enhancements will make detection more reliable. For larger asteroids, early detection and characterization means more time and more options for preparedness and prevention.
  2. Advance our ability to predict consequences and mitigation outcomes. In the unlikely event of an emergency, decision makers and emergency planners will need to know how likely the impact is, when and where the object will strike, what effects to expect on the ground, and whether prevention is possible. Answering these questions requires scientific understanding and predictive tools that are reliable in high-risk and time-sensitive situations. The Administration is working to enhance and improve the Nation’s predictive capabilities.
  3. Develop means to prevent asteroid impacts. It is possible to send unmanned spacecraft to prevent an asteroid impact. There are two basic methods to consider. A deflection mission would nudge the object off an Earth-bound direction, while a disruption mission would fragment it into smaller pieces that will miss the Earth or burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere. We are taking steps consistent with all U.S. treaty obligations and international commitments, to be prepared to take action if the need arises.
  4. Work with international partners. International cooperation is the best way to address the threat of possible impacts. Capabilities for characterizing and mitigating the threat—such as telescopes and space launch facilities—are spread across the globe. The United States is playing a leading role in international efforts to meet this challenge.
  5. Strengthen and exercise emergency procedures and protocols. In the unlikely event that a threat is identified, we are implementing procedures are in place to transmit the right information to government officials, the public, and international partners, and to take steps to reduce adverse consequences and help those in harm’s way.

The Trump Administration’s plan leverages existing policies and capabilities and, where necessary, identifies focused actions to support emergency preparedness and scientific missions. Implementing this plan will significantly improve America’s capacity and readiness to warn against, prepare for, and prevent damaging asteroid impacts. Scientists and engineers at NASA and across the country are working every day to advance scientific and technological understanding that will keep Americans safe for decades to come.