How to treat sensationalist headlines regarding asteroid strikes
Unlike the dinosaurs, we can find and track hazardous NEOs and calculate the likelihood of them impacting Earth years, decades and even centuries before they do, giving us time to deflect them. We call this effort to save our planet from major impacts “planetary defense.” It is the reason there isn’t a need to panic about an asteroid strike. Clickbaity media headlines about small asteroids flying past Earth or entering our atmosphere make the problem sound more alarming than it is.
“There are no known [sizable] asteroids on a collision course with Earth for the foreseeable future. NASA always makes information about NEOs available at cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/sentry,” said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
If and when we learn that a sizable asteroid will impact Earth for real, you can rest assured that NASA and other such space organizations globally will be sending out press releases and issuing ongoing updates on all their channels. That being said, the need to plan and prepare to avoid future asteroid strikes is now, and we’re already lagging behind.
Why we need to prepare for an incoming asteroid now
We simply don’t know how many city-destroying NEOs are out there lurking in space and targeting Earth. While popular movies have brought to public attention the potential threat of an impact, it took nearly 25 years to convince policymakers at space agencies and organizations around the world that investing resources to identify, track and deflect NEOs is necessary. And even then, significant funding began only in the last decade when the U.S. White House, catalyzed by a key report from the National Research Council, proposed a five-fold fund increase to discover NEOs.
Increased U.S. funding for planetary defense also led to the launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in 2021. Later this year in September, it will become the world’s first spacecraft to smash into an asteroid to change its trajectory and help test our deflection abilities.