NASA Opens Asteroid Defense Office To Track Dangerous Objects

NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office will keep an eye on dangerous asteroids and comets. Mopic/Shutterstock

If you still have nightmares about Deep Impact or Armageddon, this news might ease your terrors: NASA has announced the creation of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), which will supervise all NASA-funded projects that aim to protect us from near-Earth objects (NEOs).

There are over 13,500 objects that orbit in the proximity of Earth, and they range in size from about 1 meter (3 feet) to 32 kilometers (20 miles). Ninety-six of these are comets while the rest are asteroids. Scientists are confident that 90 percent of all the asteroids above 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) have been identified, but many smaller ones remain hidden.

"Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. "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."

The office will coordinate any plan to spot potential threats, working in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Defense, and international counterparts. The PDCO will also issue notices of close passes and warnings of any potentially hazardous object discovered.

"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," said Lindley Johnson, longtime NEO program executive who will now lead the PDCO.

NASA’s current objective is to find 90 percent of all the asteroids bigger than 140 meters (450 feet) by 2020. Surveys indicate that about 25 percent of these mid-sized objects have been discovered.

NASA's long-term planetary defense goal doesn't only include the observation of the objects, but also developing the technology to deflect or redirect objects that are on a collision course with Earth. Both NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission and the joint NASA-ESA Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission will, in the next decade, test the feasibility of stopping asteroids before they get too close to us. 

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