All systems go for NASA’s planetary defence operation

11 Jan 2016

NASA’s plans to discover every near-Earth object (NEO) have just been formalised, with the space agency funded to the tune of $50m for 2016. Ultimately, NASA wants to develop ways to intercept meteors destined for Earth, sending them off course.

The new Planetary Defence Coordination Office (PDCO) is part of an ongoing project at NASA, and the culmination of years of successful tracking of asteroids all over our solar system.

More than 13,500 NEOs have been discovered so far (95pc since NASA surveys began in 1998), with around 1,500 found annually now. Most of these are absolutely massive, with NASA’s new remit being to look for football pitch-sized rocks that could hit our planet any time soon.

Stand up and fight

NASA, with the help of the ESA, is working on ways to divert NEOs were they ever to head straight for Earth, much like Armageddon but with less Bruce Willis, dune buggies and Aerosmith.

One of the projects (partnered with ESA) currently being trialled is an asteroid impact and deflection mission. This will see satellites take position in space, one will head straight for the asteroid with its impact hopefully altering the course, while the other watches on and takes notes.

The other is solely NASA’s project, with a robot spacecraft landing on an asteroid before removing some rock and sending it into a different, measured orbit.

Of course, sometimes you can’t just shout a rock out of the sky, so, in situations of extreme danger, the PDCO can at least provide due warning and help humanity prepare for any impact.

A very serious subject

“Asteroid detection, tracking and defence of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“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 accession of this project to a formalised planetary defence operation means official titles for official people. So Lindley Johnson, a long-time executive of the NEO programme, is now wonderfully titled ‘planetary defence officer’, which sounds like a cross between interstellar superstar and space-age bureaucrat.

Of course, planning for this eventuality is not a new concept, as Professor Frink can explain.

Meteor image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic