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Supercomputing Asteroid Impacts for Planetary Defenses

When an asteroid struck the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013, the blast from the asteroid’s shock wave broke windows and damaged buildings as far away as 58 miles (93 kilometers), injuring more than 1,200 people.

In support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, researchers are creating 3-D models and using one of NASA’s most powerful supercomputers to produce simulations of hypothetical asteroid impact scenarios. Their results help first responders and other agencies to identify and make better informed decisions for how best to defend against life-threatening asteroid events.

Asteroid impacts are one of the only natural disasters we can actually predict and then take action to protect people,” said Michael Aftosmis, an aerospace engineer who leads the ATAP blast wave and ground damage modeling work at NAS.

High-fidelity simulations of potential asteroids covering a wide range of sizes were run on the Pleiades supercomputer using NASA’s Cart3D and Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s ALE3D modeling software by experts on the Asteroid Threat Assessment Project at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility at Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

The NASA team was able to run large-scale simulations of the Chelyabinsk asteroid event on Pleiades to produce many impact scenarios quickly, because Cart3D is dozens of times faster than typical 3-D numerical modeling used for aerodynamic analysis. The detailed simulations allowed the team to model the fluid flow that occurs when asteroids melt and vaporize as they break up in the atmosphere.

In this video from NASA Ames, an ALE3D simulation shows a Chelyabinsk-like asteroid breaking up during atmospheric entry at about 45,000 miles per hour, with a high-pressure shock wave that forms around the asteroid causing it to fracture and flatten like a pancake.

What’s unique about our analysis is that we can rapidly assess so many scenarios while faithfully representing the key physics,” said Donovan Mathias at NASA/Ames.

NASA’s asteroid research is shared with scientists at universities, national labs, and government agencies who develop assessment and response plans to look at damage to infrastructure, warning times, evacuations, and other options for protecting lives and property.

Source: NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division

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