NASA has finally officialized a defense program that has kept a fairly low profile for quite some time, one that is meant to detect and defend our planet against alien bodies. No, they're not body-snatchers (Invasion of the Body-Snatchers) or Yeerks (Animorphs) or even Aliens with a capital "A": rather, they're celestial bodies, and NASA's newly formed Planetary Defense Coordination Office's number one priority is to make sure any myriad of near-Earth objects (or as NASA calls them, NEOs) stay out of our atmosphere.
The Planetary Defense Coordination Office, or PDCO, is in charge of classifying asteroids, comets, and other like-minded entitites that fall anywhere within our orbit and our sun. According to an official statement announcing the formation of PDCO, the department's responsibilities also include "coordinating interagency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats," meaning that they can collaborate with other domestic departments like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and come up with contingency plans in case of fallout.
"Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously," said NASA's John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. "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."
Even if there is nothing pressingly imminent, there sure is a lot out there: according to NASA, there are about 13,500 NEOs between us and the sun to date, and about 1,500 new ones discovered every year on average — and those are stats that have only been compiled since 1998 when NASA began surveying for them.
So how does NASA detect an NEO to begin with? With help from the NEOWISE, a "space-based" infrared telescope, which is helmed by the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center. Once a NEO is spotted and tracked, the data is then sent over to NASA's Center for NEO Studies, which is run out of the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. But even though these departments area already in place, they only focus on keeping an eye on the NEOs they find, not necessarily coming with up with what to do if one gets a little too close for comfort.
"The formal establishment of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office makes it evident that the agency 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 NEO program executive Lindley Johnson, who has now taken the lead at PDCO under the title Planetary Defense Officer.
Part of what made the office's formation possible is a federal allocation of funds: NASA was recently given $50 million by the government specifically for NEO observation and laying the groundwork for actualized planetary defense efforts. This is a major step up from as recently as 2012, when NASA was given $20.4 million to launch its Grand Asteroid Challenge, a program dedicated to eking out asteroid threats (funding for this was doubled to $40 million in 2014). Before that, only $4 million was designated to NEO research annually.
Learn more about NASA's Grand Asteroid Challenge and NEOs in the video below.