NASA Unveils New Asteroid Detection Program: What Happens When An Asteroid Hits Earth?

10 January 2016, 7:20 pm EST By Alyssa Navarro Tech Times
NASA is prepared to defend the planet in case any threatening cataclysmic asteroids are lurking around. The space agency on Thursday formally created its new asteroid detection program called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).  ( University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy/Rob Ratkowski )

In case any potentially catastrophic asteroids are looming around threatening the Earth, NASA is prepared to defend the planet – albeit not in the way superheroes would.

On Thursday, the space agency formally founded its new asteroid detection program called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).

The PDCO is an organization that is assigned to coordinate all of NASA's efforts to list down and classify Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that may damage our planet.

Before the institution of the PDCO, NASA has been engaged in global planning for planetary defense for a long time. The PDCO will improve and expand those efforts while working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), federal agencies and other departments.

Lindley Johnson, who now holds the title Planetary Defense Officer aside from being the executive of the NEO Observations program, said the establishment of the PDCO makes it apparent that NASA is truly committed in its national and international efforts for the detection of natural impact hazards.

The PDCO will issue notices of nearby passes and warnings if it detects any potential impacts. The office will also assist with coordination across U.S. government agencies; participate in planning possible responses to an actual impact threat; and work with FEMA, the U.S. Department of Defense and other international counterparts.

What Happens If A NEO Such As A Comet Or An Asteroid Hits Earth?

If you were born before the late 1990s, then you probably know what the film "Deep Impact" is all about. A 7-mile long comet threatens to destroy and collide with Earth, and a joint United States-Russia team is sent to destroy the comet. If they fail, humanity is doomed.

A 7-mile long comet is definitely huge and can amass damage, but scientists say it is not enough to wipe out the entire planet. According to a research team that published a paper in the journal Astronomy & Geophysics, a 31- to 61-mile wide centaur, a term for a massive comet, is more likely to destroy Earth. Planetary collisions from centaurs often occur once about every 40,000 to 100,000 years, the team wrote.

Comets are different from asteroids, of course. Comets are made up of ice, dust and rocky material while asteroids are made up of metals and rocky matter. Even though the two are different, a 60-mile asteroid can also obliterate our planet.

University of Colorado geoscientist Brian Toon said an asteroid half a mile in diameter can do a lot of damage and cause widespread earthquakes with an energy equal to 100 billion tons of TNT.

Just like with comets, that kind of damage won't be completely catastrophic. Scientists believe that the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was about 7 to 8 miles wide. It's not a coincidence that "Deep Impact" writers chose a 7-mile comet.

Luckily, planetary sciences professor Richard Binzel said that nowadays there are no asteroids in orbit big enough to wipe out Earth.

Keep Our Eyes To The Sky

Although asteroids have not made any impact on the planet ever since the extinction of dinosaurs, more than 13,500 NEOs have already been detected by astronomers. About 1,500 NEOs turn up every year, NASA said.

On Halloween last year, an asteroid the size of five and a half football fields flew past Earth. NASA managed to capture radar images of asteroid 2015 TB145, which passed by the planet on the morning of Oct. 31.

John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said there are currently no known impact threats, but the Chelyabinsk super-fireball and the close approach of the Halloween asteroid should remind scientists to remain vigilant and "keep our eyes to the sky."

Scientists detect NEOs using ground-based telescopes located around the world. NASA uses its NEOWISE infrared telescope, which measures data containing asteroids and comets from images collected by the WISE or Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft.

Why The PCDO Was Created

Before the formation of the PCDO, NASA's NEO program has been searching for space rocks since 1998. Congress funded the program to find 90 percent of the potentially dangerous NEOs roaming around our planet, all of which have diameters of over one kilometer or 0.6 miles.

Now, about 911 large NEOs are recorded, the agency said, accounting to a whopping 93 percent of these celestial NEOs.

NASA's next research project involves the identification of 90 percent of NEOs with diameters of over 120 meters or 0.12 miles by 2020. However, these asteroids are more difficult to detect because of their smaller size, and they are also more abundant than large NEOs.

Apart from that, the NEO program got entangled in a complicated financial and administrative mess. The program's expanded budget created a tangle 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 became the kick that NASA needed to reorganize its program and therefore form the PDCO to help efforts get back on track.

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