An enormous asteroid hitting the Earth and wiping out all life. It’s the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, but could it really happen? NASA appears to think so. In fact, they’d spent a great deal of money watching the skies, looking for that next NEO (or, Near Earth Object) that might send us the way of the dinosaurs.
Last week, NASA unveiled the PDCO – or Planetary Defense Coordination Office. For the first time in human history, an official department now exists with the sole purpose of detecting NEOs that could present a problem for our planet. The primary change in how NASA searches for and reacts to possible threatening NEOs will be in how the agency works with other agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
The PDCO will issue notices of nearby NEO passages, as well as warnings of any and all possible impacts from any of those NEO’s. NASA says that the PDCO will also help to coordinate pertinent government agencies to make sure the proper response is executed by each in the event of an impact.
According to NASA, over 13,500 NEO’s have been detected, and more than 95 percent of those have been discovered since 1998, when NASA-funded surveys began searching for them. NASA says that about 1,500 NEO’s are discovered each year.
John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington talked about the importance of the PDCO.
“Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously. 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.”
NASA’s main directive with the PDCO moving forward will focus on finding NEOs that are larger than the approximate size of a football field, (450 feet). The PDCO has deemed that objects over this size present the potential to do serious harm to Earth if they were to impact.
So, what would the PDCO do if they happened to realize that one of these large NEO’s would collide with Earth? NASA says that one of the their long-term planetary defense goals is to develop technology and techniques that would enable mankind to either deflect or redirect incoming objects that may cause major harm to our planet. One of those technologies is called the ARM, or Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which a sort of “gravity tractor” would use the mass of one object launched from Earth to “pull” a hazardous NEO from its original orbital flight path. Another plan being researched in a joint effort between NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) is called AIDA – or Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment, which would again look to deflect a dangerous NEO from an impact path on Earth.
In the short term, the PDCO will work closely with FEMA – providing them information about the timing of an NEO, the location of the NEO’s impact, what sort of damage may be caused, and the threat to human life. The PDCO would then advise FEMA about the best ways to minimize the potential harm, and the best ways to react to it.
Current FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate, commented on his departments new partnership with the PDCO.
“FEMA is dedicated to protecting against all hazards, and the launch of the coordination office will ensure early detection and warning capability, and will further enhance FEMA’s collaborative relationship with NASA.”
Watching the skies for hazardous objects such as ridiculously large meteorites and comets and devising ways to deflect those objects from the flight path of the Earth once seemed like science fiction, but it’s now clear that NASA takes those threats very seriously.
[Photo by NASA/ESA via Getty Images]