NASA’s New Planetary Defense Coordination Office Is Not What It Sounds Like

January 15, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

an artist's concept of the young Earth being bombarded by asteroids
Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It doesn’t involve aliens.

When somebody says “Planetary Defense Coordination Office,” the image that comes to my mind is of an army of humans fighting off tiny green aliens. NASA’s definition is a little bit — okay very — different. As NASA announced last week (January 7), the purpose of their new Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) will be to keep an eye on near-Earth objects (NEOs) like asteroids and comets.

Although the PDCO is new, the idea of tracking these bodies is not. 13,500 NEOs have been discovered since 1988.

"Asteroid detection, tracking and defence of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "While there are no known impact threats at this time, the 2013 Chelyabinsk super-fireball and the recent 'Halloween Asteroid' close approach remind us of why we need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes to the sky."

SEE ALSO: Hitchhiking on Comets: The latest trend in space travel

The PDCO will be responsible for tracking these objects, but also for alerting the public to their findings and any potential threats. In the case of an emergency, they will work with other governmental agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In the long term, they aim to create a plan to deflect or redirect NEOs heading for Earth and send them on a different orbital path.

Do they even know how to deflect one you ask? In 2013, NASA announced plans for an asteroid redirect mission, the goal of which is to have a probe travel to a large, near-Earth asteroid and bring back a multi-ton boulder while redirecting it to an orbit around the moon. From there, it will be close enough for astronauts to visit and study it further in order to understand more about the formation of our solar system. These plans are made for the 2020s, so really not all that far away.

The PDCO’s current goal is to detect 90 percent of medium-sized NEOs, about 450 feet (140 meters) long by the end of the decade, as most of the larger sized ones, 3,000 feet (1 kilometer) or so long, have already been located by Astronomers using telescopic surveys of the sky. Although smaller, these medium-sized bodies would definitely not be harmless if they were to collide with Earth.

The recently past 2016 federal budget includes $50 million for NEO detection, observation, and planetary defense. Do you feel safer yet?

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