In the great pantheon of apocalyptic events, few scenarios inspire more dread than the threat of a cataclysmic asteroid impact. After all, we know that Earth has already taken several punches to the face in the past, sparking mass extinctions in some cases, and that we are no doubt currently on collision courses with asteroids that would be happy to relieve our planet of its overburdensome life at some unspecified point in the future.
That’s why for decades, activists have been trying to get a jump on any potentially hazardous asteroids that might sideswipe our planet, or worse, faceplant on it. To that end, NASA just founded a new organization called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), which is tasked with coordinating all of the agency’s efforts to catalogue Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that pose a risk to Earth.
Gif of NEO 433 Eros visited by NEAR Shoemaker in 2000. Image: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
"The formal establishment of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office makes it evident that [NASA] 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, who heads up the PDCO with the badass title of Planetary Defense Officer, in a statement.
Some background on NASA’s previous NEO program might contextualize the reasoning behind this new office. The agency first got cracking on its search for errant space rocks in 1998, when Congress funded a program to find 90 percent of potentially hazardous NEOs with diameters of over one kilometer within the decade. NASA hit that one out of the park. 911 of these juggernaut asteroids are now on the books, which is estimated to be around 93 percent.
However, NASA’s next research target was substantially more difficult: the identification of 90 percent of NEOs with diameters over 140 meters by 2020. Not only are these asteroids harder to detect because of their smaller sizes, they are also estimated to be much more abundant than large rocks.
To make matters worse, the NEO Program’s drastically expanded budget created a bloated and inefficient tangle of different offices with no general supervision. This eventually resulted in a scathing audit from NASA inspector general Paul Martin in September 2014, who minced no words about the need for a major overhaul of the department.
“NASA has organized its NEO Program under a single Program Executive who manages a loosely structured conglomerate of research activities that are not well integrated and lack overarching Program oversight, objectives, and established milestones to track progress,” Martin wrote in his report.
“[E]ven 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 ten percent of all asteroids 140 meters and larger.”
This revelation that the NEO Program was lagging so far behind was the roundhouse kick NASA needed to reorganize its efforts, and establish the PDCO to help get the directive back on track.
Chart showing the progress in detecting NEOs. Image: Alan B. Chamberlin/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA
In addition to investing more funds into instruments for detecting small asteroids and managing the growing catalogue of NEOs, the new office will also work on a strategy for protecting Earth in the event that we do find an asteroid capable of delivering the Doomsday scenario played out in so many impact movies. Bruce Willis is not an adequate survival plan, sadly, so the PDCO is tasked with figuring out how to muster domestic and international powers to ward off future impacts.
Much of this research will rely on asteroid missions such as OSIRIS-REx, slated for launch this September, which will travel to a potential Earth impactor and bring back samples so that scientists can see what kind of material we are up against. There are also missions in the works that aim to experiment with deflecting asteroids out of hazardous trajectories, or even capturing them in either Earth or lunar orbit to be studied and mined.
It’s comforting to know that there are potential inroads being made against the threat of death from above. But even so, events such as the surprise 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor explosion highlight that time is of the essence when it comes to asteroid impacts. As the science fiction writer Larry Niven said: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right.”
Best of luck, PDCO. Life on Earth is counting on you. No pressure.