Asteroid Risk Assessment: A Probabilistic Approach

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Abstract

Following the 2013 Chelyabinsk event, the risks posed by asteroids attracted renewed interest, from both the scientific and policy-making communities. It reminded the world that impacts from near-Earth objects (NEOs), while rare, have the potential to cause great damage to cities and populations. Point estimates of the risk (such as mean numbers of casualties) have been proposed, but because of the low-probability, high-consequence nature of asteroid impacts, these averages provide limited actionable information. While more work is needed to further refine its input distributions (e.g., NEO diameters), the probabilistic model presented in this article allows a more complete evaluation of the risk of NEO impacts because the results are distributions that cover the range of potential casualties. This model is based on a modularized simulation that uses probabilistic inputs to estimate probabilistic risk metrics, including those of rare asteroid impacts. Illustrative results of this analysis are presented for a period of 100 years. As part of this demonstration, we assess the effectiveness of civil defense measures in mitigating the risk of human casualties. We find that they are likely to be beneficial but not a panacea. We also compute the probability—but not the consequences—of an impact with global effects (“cataclysm”). We conclude that there is a continued need for NEO observation, and for analyses of the feasibility and risk-reduction effectiveness of space missions designed to deflect or destroy asteroids that threaten the Earth.

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