NASA has activated the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), its program for the detection and tracking of space objects belonging to the NEO (Near-Earth Object) category, meaning the type whose orbit is close to that of Earth. This office is part of the agency’s Planetary Science Division, will be responsible for coordinating all projects connected to NEO-type asteroids and comets and will have a leading role in coordinating efforts with other agencies and governments about potential impact threats.
In recent years there has been increasing attention towards the potential danger caused by asteroids. It’s become normal to read in the news that an asteroid will pass near Earth, in some cases even closer than the Moon. Luckily space is really huge so the chance that NEO-type celestial bodies hit Earth is very little but in February 2013 a meteorite hit Russia causing massive damage with many injuries though it was really small and exploded in the atmosphere.
NASA is becoming more and more active and in recent years launched a Grand Challenge about the asteroids. The creation of the PDCO is another step forward. The new office will monitor the research program of the old NEO Observations Program, which uses various instruments to study and monitor various known NEOs. The ones identified have been so far monitored by the Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS).
At this moment, NASA can only identify dangerous NEO-type objects if they’re big enough and at in the worst-case scenario provide advance information on the time and place of their impact to help as much as possible with the emergency operations. The long-term goal is to develop technologies that can deflect or destroy a NEO that proves dangerous. There’s also a growing interest in exploiting the asteroids for their minerals but again we’re still in a phase of theoretical study.
We can hope that the activation of the PDCO is a step forward in monitoring NEOs from NASA. Above all, we hope for an increase of research on technologies to defend the Earth from asteroids because the chances that a big one hit the planet are very little but one large enough would be enough to cause a global catastrophe.