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The very fake asteroid that hit fake Winston-Salem
NASA and others recently did a practice exercise to figure out what would happen if a large space rock crashed near a large city. They chose one in North Carolina.
It’s been a bit since I’ve seen Armageddon, a movie where NASA sends Bruce Willis and others into space to blow up an asteroid that’s headed toward Earth. I do remember it being not so realistic (Apparently, when Ben Affleck asked director Michael Bay why it would be easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts instead of the other way around, Affleck said “he told me to shut the f—k up, so that was the end of that talk."). At least, the oil-drillers-blowing-apart-a-space-rock part isn’t realistic. An asteroid hitting Earth, however, is a very real potential event, one that NASA and FEMA both practice for. Last week, that practice hit pretty close to home.
Natalie lives in Winston-Salem, and presumably was just a little rattled to think about a large space rock screaming through space toward her house.
Anyhow, here’s what was going on:
Over the course of two days, multiple U.S. government agency officials worked through a detailed hypothetical scenario in which astronomers “discover” a simulated asteroid, designated 2022 TTX, that has a probability of impacting the Earth six months after its discovery. As more information was revealed to exercise participants through a series of modules, it became clear the (simulated) asteroid, which is large enough to cause substantial regional damage, would indeed impact Earth near Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
I mean, I’m glad that a lot of people are trying to figure out what to do in this situation, honestly. Also, it’s good to know that we’d have plenty of time to prepa—
Specific details of the asteroid such as its size—and therefore its impact energy and detailed damage it would cause—remained highly uncertain until just days before the asteroid’s simulated impact, mimicking how this information could unfold in the real world due to limitations of current capabilities.
I feel compelled, dear Rabbit Hole reader, to tell you in all caps THAT THIS IS JUST AN EXERCISE AND THAT THERE IS NO ACTUAL REAL-WORLD INFORMATION THAT AN ASTEROID IS CURRENTLY HURTLING TOWARD NORTH CAROLINA OR ANY OTHER PLACE ON EARTH. That being said, here’s the best guess from NASA about what would likely happen if a large hunk of space rock took dead aim at the greater Winston-Salem area.
The early discovery of a fake asteroid
All of what follows is, again, a scenario which was gamed out at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland back on February 23 and 24. I know I’m being over-the-top here with words like “fake,” and “faux,” and whatnot, but in an era of misinformation and out-of-context screenshots, I’m doing my part. But! I do think there’s value to learning about the work that goes into trying to figure out what people would do in this situation, and since NASA made all of this public, the agency at least thinks the same as well. So, here goes:
February 11, 2022: NASA discovers a new “asteroid”, and gives it the name “2022 TTX.” For what it’s worth, NASA says it chose that name to let people know, again, that THIS IS JUST A PRACTICE SCENARIO, because real-life asteroids don’t get three-letter names.
Anyhow, in this scenario, the fake scientists and astronomers don’t know how big 2022 TTX is, but they do think that, due to its orbit, it’ll at least come close to faux-Earth later in the fall, most likely on August 16. They’ll have another window later to get a better look at the fake asteroid, and they’ll have a better idea then about what effect it might have.
February 23, 2022: Okay, the fake scientists and astronomers have really been looking at this thing, and instead of the probability of impact falling to zero, it’s now at 71%. So where would it hit? Somewhere in the Atlantic, Pacific, or possibly the United States.
June 15, 2022: So now that the fake folks have determined that it’s probably going to hit Earth, they’ve been busy. They went back to space imagery from 2015 and discovered pictures of 2022 TTX that they hadn’t noticed before (In real life, nobody’s noticed 2022 TTX, because it is not a real asteroid). They’ve also been using super powerful telescopes to get hundreds of new images of this imaginary asteroid. Because of that, they now have a fake impact zone: not North Carolina.
They also have a precise, albeit unreal, impact time: 2:02:10 pm EDT on August 16, 2022. Put that on your fantasy Google Calendar.
Nobody’s exactly sure how big that the fake 2022 TTX is because it’s still very far away (tens of millions of miles). But they do know that it’s smaller than 1,100 feet across. Which, you know, isn’t big for a made-up asteroid, but that’s still like A QUARTER MILE WIDE, so it’s pretty big for us humans!
At this point, the not-real federal government starts telling not-real authorities in North Carolina about the not-real asteroid. The intent is for a lot of people to work together at federal, state, and local levels to work out what to do, according to slides from the NASA exercise. The fake feds also have to figure out, like immediately, whether to pop a nuclear warhead on an imaginary ballistic missile to see if they can hit the asteroid a few minutes before impact. The likelihood of that doing anything is low, and it could potentially make things worse, but hey, you gotta try somethin’.
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Space Upside Your Head
August 10, 2022: Now we’re really getting close. The fake asteroid is now near enough to be detected by fake radar. Basically, the thought goes, that the bigger the asteroid, the earlier it would be detected by radar. Since it’s only able to be picked up six days before impact, NASA thinks the fake space rock is smaller than it first thought: somewhere between 200-260 feet across. The radar also gives a lot more accuracy about where and how this make-believe asteroid is gonna hit. It would come out of the north-northeast at a fairly steep angle, and slam into an area to the east of Winston-Salem at about 34,700 miles per hour. That is insanely fast. This is less of a “blink and you’ll miss it” situation and more of a “blink and you’ll miss the rest of your life” sort of deal.
By this point, fake NASA has a pretty good idea of what’ll happen where. About 8 miles off the ground, there would be an airburst, which is basically an explosion that occurs when the fake asteroid hits the atmosphere. It’s the equivalent of setting off an 11 megaton nuclear bomb. In the simulation, the shock waves will do the most damage, although it’ll also whip up a 65 mile-per-hour wind.
There’s about a 1-2 mile area below that airburst where everything gets utterly destroyed. Then, there’s a 3-5 mile swath where, in this simulation, homes are reduced to rubble. Past that, there will be some damage and broken windows and doors within 10 miles of the faux impact site, and 20 miles from there, some minor damage. At this point in the scenario, the folks in eastern Winston-Salem, Walkertown, and Kernersville are gonna get the worst of it. Sorry about your fake bad luck, Körner's Folly.
In the exercise, there’s a very big shift in planning from asteroid behavior to human behavior. The fake impact will impact anywhere between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of fake citizens of the not-real Triad. Evacuation plans now have to be set into action. Emergency scenarios for businesses and industry have to be taken into account. Also, in a sad commentary on our modern world, there’s a bunch of misinformation out there. The fake news (in this case, literally, THIS NEWS IS FAKE) is reporting that there’s local chatter on social media that this whole asteroid thing is a government hoax. In the scenario, about 20% percent of the made-up people in the impacted area can’t or won’t evacuate.
August 16, 2022 - ASTEROID GAMEDAY: The fake asteroid hits, precisely on schedule.
How big of an impact does it make in the exercise? Well, it’d be comparable to this nuclear test from Nevada in the 1950s:
According to the NASA scenario:
Drones are capturing images of shattered windows, collapsed buildings and bridges, and secondary fires, and people are trapped and waving for help. The Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) are overwhelmed with calls from
people reporting collapsed buildings and bridges, windows shattered, small fires, and people trapped under rubble. The Belews Power plant, which is ~15 miles NE of Winston-Salem, has been affected by the airburst and has been shut down. This has caused a power outage to the Piedmont Triad, which includes the cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point.
About 1.6 million not real people are without power. At this point, basically, the emergency managers in this scenario are trying to figure out how to help and what to do. And, once again, they’re fighting a new wave of misinformation. There are a lot of Powerpoint slides from this simulation, but this one is by far the most memorable:
Folks, you gotta stop putting T.X. Asteroid on TV! HE KNOWS NOTHING.
Alright, So We Just Blew Up Fake Kernersville With A Made-Up Asteroid. Now What?
Again, an asteroid is not heading toward Winston-Salem or its suburbs. What precedes this was all part of an exercise held by NASA and FEMA late last month, where emergency planners and others had to figure out what they’d do and how they’d do it. NASA says it’s in the process of writing up a summary of its findings and of the simulation, and it’ll be presenting that to the public later this year.
It is, I suppose, somewhat reassuring to know that we do have people working on planetary defense who are scanning the skies for large space objects and trying to work out how to prepare here on Earth in the case that one would actually hit. “This fourth interagency asteroid impact tabletop exercise provided a forum for federal and local government officials to work through what an impending asteroid impact threat to the United States would look like, with the real people that would be needed for such discussions given this type of impact scenario,” said the FEMA Detailee to Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA Headquarters, whose fantastic and very real name is Leviticus “L.A.” Lewis.
Also, there are some real-life efforts going on to do something Armageddon-like to potential asteroids. NASA has already launched its Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. Basically, we fired off a rocket at the small moon of a nearby asteroid. Neither will hit earth, but the DART rocket is going to hit that small moon HARD. Plus, it’ll be at a close enough range to be able to see whether we can change its motion in space.
DART will hit its target sometime this fall, so we’ll have to wait until then to see if it works. But, says NASA:
However, for a technology like DART to be viable, it is imperative an impact threat be discovered with enough warning time—many years to a decade in advance. Thus, the development continues on the agency’s Near-Earth Object Surveyor mission (NEO Surveyor), which will be an infrared space telescope specifically designed to expedite the agency’s ability to discover and characterize most of the potentially hazardous NEOs, including those that may approach Earth from the daytime sky.
So no, a ragtag team of oil drillers is not actually going to be able to save the planet. But even if we can’t blow up an asteroid, we’re at least working on getting out of the way.