Earth is overdue for an asteroid impact on par with the one that killed the dinosaurs. In an effort to keep this existential threat at bay, NASA founded a new asteroid detection program dubbed the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).
The PDCO is an organization designated to coordinate all of NASA’s efforts to identify and classify Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that could harm the planet.
Prior to the founding of PDCO, the space agency had been involved in a global planning for a planetary defense program for a number of years. The PDCO will refine and enhance those efforts while joining forces with the Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA), federal agencies and various international organizations.
Lindley John, head of the Planetary Defense Office, said the founding of the PDCO makes it clear that NASA is truly committed in its national and international efforts to detect NEOs and other astronomical threats.
Keeping an eye on the sky
The PDCO will release notices of nearby passes and warnings if it discovers any potential threats. The department will also aid with coordination U.S. government agencies, engage in developing possible responses to a real threat, and work with FEMA, the U.S. Department of defense and various international organizations.
Asteroids and comets vary in size and in turn, potential destruction. A collision with a 7 mile wide comet would definitely have a global impact, but wouldn’t be large enough to destroy all of life. Scientists suspect the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was 7 to 8 miles wide.
It would take a collision with a 60 mile wide asteroid to destroy all life on Earth. Fortunately, according to planetary sciences professor Richard Binzel, there are no asteroids large enough in orbit that could destroy our planet.
No asteroids have made a major impact with Earth since the extinction of the dinosaurs but NASA has already detected more than 13,500 NEOs. Approximately 1,500 NEOs are spotted each year, according to NASA officials.
Last Halloween, for instance, an asteroid the size of five and a half football fields, dubbed 2015 TB145, flew past Earth. John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told sources that their are no known impact threats, but thinks potential threats – like the one that occurred last Halloween – give scientists an imperative to “keep our eyes to the sky.”
Scientists detect NEOs with ground-based telescopes, which are spread throughout the world. NASA uses its NEOWISE infrared telescope, which measures data about asteroids and comets from images provided by the WISE or Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft.
Congress funds program to deter existential threat
Before the development of the PCDO, Nasa’s NEO program had been looking for space debris since 1998. Congress funded the program to identify 90 percent of NEOs that were potentially dangerous to Earth, all of which have a diameter of 0.6 miles.
Approximately 911 large NEOs have been recorded, constituting a staggering 93 percent of these celestial NEOs. The space agency’s next project involves identifying 90 percent of NEOs with diameters larger than 0.12 miles by 2020. These asteroids are more difficult to pinpoint because of their small size.
Despite these goals in mind, the NEO program has been at the center of a complicated financial and administrative mess. The program’s extended budget generated a myriad of differences, with no main supervision.
“Even with a ten-fold increase in the NEO Program budget in the past five years – from $4 million in fiscal year (FY) 2009 to $40 million in FY 2014 – NASA estimates that it has identified only about 10 percent of all asteroids 140 meters and larger,” said Paul Martin, NASA’s inspector general who audited the company in September 2014. This caused NASA to reorganize its program and develop the PDOC to help the space agency get back on track.