Washington – There’s a real-life superhero ready to protect us from asteroids or comets that get too close to Earth’s orbit around the sun. NASA has set up the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to detect and track near-Earth objects (NEOs), coordinating efforts between interagency and intergovernmental offices to respond to any potential impact threats. Lindley Johnson, a longtime NEO executive, has been named the Planetary Defense Officer.
The PDCO is part of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, located in the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Over 13,500 near-Earth objects of many different sizes have been discovered so far, with more than 95 percent being found since 1998, when NASA-funded surveys began to track them.
The agency detects an estimated of 1,500 NEOs annually. While most of them just pass millions of miles off target, there are thousands of objects that could potentially strike our planet. In 2013, the so-called Chelyabinsk meteoroid exploded over the skies of Siberia and, most recently, NASA detected the “Halloween Asteroid” in 2015. Both passed too close for the agency’s comfort, making front-page news.
“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,” declared Lindley Johnson, the officer responsible for protecting our planet against asteroids like that seen in Armageddon, which was the size of Texas.
However, there’s actually not much the Planetary Defense Officer could do if a near-Earth object was really on its way to collide with our planet, for now. If such an event happened today, the officer would only be prepared to issue an early warning, alerting FEMA about exact location, timing and potential consequences of the impact.
We will have to wait until the mid-2020s to see the Planetary Defense Officer’s superpowers. By that time, NASA expects to have developed technology and techniques advanced enough to be able to deflect or redirect objects that are determined to collide with Earth.
For instance, the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission is expected to demonstrate soon that the gravity tractor method of planetary defense is highly effective as it uses the mass of a boulder to pull an asteroid or a comet slightly from its original orbital path so it won’t impact Earth.
Let’s just hope that no objects from the cosmic shooting gallery collide with Earth between now and then. In fiscal year 2016, NASA has a $50-million budget for observation of NEOs and planetary defense, compared to the $4 million object the program had had since 2010.
Source: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory