Imagine that we've detected an asteroid barrelling toward Earth. It's too late to blow it up, or nudge it off course, so the most effective form of asteroid deflection method is about to come into play: getting hit. Although death and destruction isn't a particularly desirable outcome, doing nothing may be the only plan we have left.
So, what can be done to make this bad day better? Apart from throwing the mother of all doomsday parties, with the help of a system developed by Charlotte Norlund, an astronautics PhD student from the University of Southampton, we might be able to save some lives.
Norlund's Near Earth Object Mitigation Support System (NEOMiSS) is a handy piece of software that could be used by decision makers and emergency services. The system is designed to "provide information about the ability to evacuate a threatened region prior to an impact," according to the university press release.
To put it bluntly, NEOMiSS calculates how many people will perish after taking various factors into consideration, such as historical knowledge of a variety of natural hazards and local building strength.
Developed with supervisors Peter Atkinson and Hugh Lewis, NEOMiSS would give governments an idea about the resilience of a given region to an asteroid or comet impact. By doing this, areas can be identified that may need infrastructure upgrades - to support a mass evacuation from a city, say.
"Earth-threatening NEOs may be discovered days or years before an impact, giving us the chance to launch a deflection mission or evacuate an area," explains Norlund.
"Ideally, important decisions about such a mission should be based on a number of factors, including how the deflection will change the probability of impact and its likely consequences."
Norlund touches on an important point here - if we did have enough time to make an NEO deflection attempt, would the resulting deflection be enough to direct the spinning chunk of space rock away from Earth? If not, would it be better to take the hit if its predicted impact zone is sparsely populated?
As I mentioned in a previous Discovery News article, what if a deflection attempt goes awry, and the asteroid gets redirected in a way that wasn't predicted? Could saving one city, such as Los Angleles, knock the asteroid on a collision course with Moscow? World wars have been sparked over much less.
Although the probability of colliding with a NEO is low, NEOMiSS can be used to prepare for a range of other natural disasters. "The philosophy that is applied within this new tool applies to all natural hazards where we have some advance warning, such as hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and, of course, asteroid impacts," said Lewis.
"The early results show that some regions of the world would require a considerable amount of time to get their population out of harm's way."
Image: NASA Source: University of Southampton