A new office will lead NASA’s efforts to protect Earth from potential strikes from asteroids and comets, along with overseeing the agency’s efforts to discover and study the celestial objects.
NASA announced the formation of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) in a news release last Thursday, saying the new creation is an improvement on the agency’s existing endeavors to detect any potential hazards to Earth and defend the planet against impacts.
NASA said the new office will supervise the agency’s research into so-called near-Earth objects — asteroids and comets that will come close to the planet — and communicate with federal agencies and foreign governments to develop an action plan if there is any chance of a strike.
The agency said none of the 13,500 known near-Earth objects pose any threat of impacting Earth, but about 1,500 new objects are discovered every year. A space rock that came within 300,000 miles of Earth last Halloween went undiscovered until three weeks before its arrival.
NASA officials mentioned that event and a meteor that entered Earth’s atmosphere in 2013 and created a massive fireball above Chelyabinsk, Russia, when announcing the PDCO. Those events “remind us of why we need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes to the sky,” John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
According to NASA, research and discovery of near-Earth objects has surged in recent years thanks to an influx of funding. The federal budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $50 million for planetary defense and asteroid and comet research, compared to just $4 million in 2010.
NASA said it believes it has discovered 90 percent of near-Earth objects that are bigger than 3,000 feet, and it’s currently focusing on discovering smaller rocks that are a little bit larger than a football field. The agency estimates it has only located about 25 percent of those mid-sized asteroids and comets, though it had been asked in 2005 to find 90 percent of them before 2021.
The agency is also developing some strategies to potentially stop problematic asteroids.
NASA is currently trying to robotically redirect an asteroid into an orbit around Earth’s moon. The agency’s success there could ultimately determine if scientists can steer an Earth-bound asteroid clear of the planet, though NASA says it will likely be the 2020s before it has its answer.
If it’s not possible to prevent an impact, the new office will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate a response. The PDCO will also issue warnings about space rocks that will pass close to Earth and any potential impacts of their close presence.
“The formal establishment of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office makes it evident that the agency is committed to perform a leadership role in national and international efforts for detection of these natural impact hazards, and to be engaged in planning if there is a need for planetary defense,” Lindley Johnson, the PDCO’s Planetary Defense Officer, said in a statement.