If you have asteroid-related anxiety, you can breathe easy: NASA has an office with the express purpose of protecting Earth from an impact. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) created in early 2016 now oversees all programs currently cataloging near-Earth objects.
Near-Earth objects are comets and asteroids with orbits that bring them close to our planet. Various NASA-run programs have been keeping track of near-Earth objects since 1998, but the newly established organization will be the one acronym to rule them all.
The new office is responsible for protecting Earth from impact by potentially hazardous objects (PHO). A near-Earth object earns PHO status if it comes within 5 million miles of Earth and is large enough to survive a trip through the atmosphere.
Even a NASA scientist says there's reason to worry, though he was quick to point out that he doesn't speak for agency administrators. At the annual meeting of American Geophysical Union in December 2016, Dr. Joseph Nuth, a researcher with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said we're woefully unprepared for an asteroid strike. Though such large asteroids are uncommon, his further quotes to the Guardian won't make you feel much better:
“But on the other hand they are the extinction-level events, things like dinosaur killers, they’re 50 to 60 million years apart, essentially. You could say, of course, we’re due, but it’s a random course at that point.”
What about Chelyabinsk?
On Feb. 15, 2013, a previously undetected meteor exploded 76,000 feet over Chelyabinsk in Russia causing damage and injuries. This event, caught on many cellphones and dash cams, emphasized the potential danger. You can see dash cam footage in the video below:
If an object is on a course for impact, the PDCO will be in charge of coordinating attempts to deflect or otherwise neutralize the object. The group will also collaborate with organizations such as the United States Air Force to engineer solutions to prevent an disastrous impact. If impact is unavoidable, the office will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to mitigate a disaster.
The umbrella agency will also communicate with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs and other international groups to make sure everyone else on the planet is informed of the goings on in near-Earth space.
How many near-Earth objects are out there?
As of 2016, NASA’s count was about 15,000, with roughly half being larger than 460 feet wide. The numbers have been increasing as surveys discover about 1,500 new examples each year.
The office will also coordinate the search for asteroids that could be targets for a manned mission. In 2010, President Obama highlighted the goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025.
Tracking and defending against near-Earth objects isn’t cheap. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “The recently passed federal budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $50 million for NEO observations and planetary defense, representing a more than ten-fold increase since the beginning of the current administration.”
So whether you're interested in following the orbits of comets and asteroids, worried about how we'll deflect them, or you want to visit one yourself one day, the PDCO is a one-stop shop for information.
This story was originally published in January 2016 and has been updated with more recent information.