In a recent “table-top” exercise, NASA and its peers posed a thought-provoking challenge, which asked: Does Earth have the technology to stop an Earthbound asteroid in its path? The hypothetical scenario stirred up some interesting discussion on what, if anything, could be done to change our fate in the event of a catastrophic collision.

Six Months To Save The World

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In the exercise, scientists were pit against a hypothetical asteroid known as 2021 PDC, which was determined to be between 35 and 700 meters in size and traveling over a distance of 35 million miles before it would impact Earth. The scenario gave the scientists a timeline of six months. Information was gradually acquired as the asteroid drew dangerously closer to colliding with a portion of the Eastern Hemisphere.

Worked out over a real-time period of six days, scientists were able to move through 2021 PDC’s moment of detection, through its likely trajectory, right to its point of impact. By the second day, it was established that the asteroid would impact a point within Europe and Northern Africa, which was later narrowed to an area between Germany and the Czech Republic.

The exercise continuously asked what technology could be used to avert or mitigate the impact. It was then determined that, within a hypothetical window of just six months to collision, no spacecraft could be launched in time to have any effect. Any hope of deflecting such an asteroid would require more time to plan and deploy a launch.

What About A Nuclear Option? 

Suggestions of using a nuclear device to alter the path of the asteroid or mitigate its destruction held some potential, although quite limited without a more precise understanding of the asteroid’s properties. Even with such a prospect, the scientists determined that current nuclear explosive capabilities would likely be inadequate at disrupting larger asteroids.

Artist conception of a view of the Asteroid Belt. Credit: Pablo Carlos Budassi

The anti-asteroid exercise spurred some very important questions on what can be done to improve technology that gives scientists as much insight as possible, as early as possible, to prepare for a defensive launch. Then there is the question of what spacecraft technology could possibly be developed to effectively counter such a threat.

What are your thoughts on the outcome of NASA’s technology versus asteroid challenge? Are you surprised to learn our options for dealing with such a potential calamity are so few? Comment and share your thoughts.


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is America’s civil space program and the global leader in space exploration. The agency has a diverse workforce of just under 18,000 civil servants, and works with many more U.S. contractors, academia, and international and commercial partners to explore, discover, and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity. With an annual budget of $23.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2021, which is less than 0.5% of the overall U.S. federal budget, NASA supports more than 312,000 jobs across the United States, generating more than $64.3 billion in total economic output (Fiscal Year 2019).

At its 20 centers and facilities across the country – and the only National Laboratory in space – NASA studies Earth, including its climate, our Sun, and our solar system and beyond. We conduct research, testing, and development to advance aeronautics, including electric propulsion and supersonic flight. We develop and fund space technologies that will enable future exploration and benefit life on Earth.

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