It didn’t take long for NASA’s new Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to get a nickname, and it looks like it will soon be known as the “Armageddon Office” to everyone outside of the Beltway.
The new Armageddon Office now has formal responsibility for tracking all near-Earth objects, a much-needed consolidation of the previously fragmented program.
PDCO is still a part of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, under the Science Mission Directorate in Washington DC. The Armageddon Office will now manage all NASA-funded projects to find and describe asteroids and comets that pass near Earth. The office also has a key role in coordinating governmental efforts in response to any impact threats that are identified.
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Experts note that over 13,500 near-Earth objects of all sizes have been located so far, and around 95% of the NEOs found have been a part of NASA-funded surveys that began more than 15 years ago. Of interest, close to 1,500 new NEOs are found every year.
Statement from NASA administrators
“Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” commented John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for NASA’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.”
Lindley Johnson, longtime NASA NEO program executive, was tapped as the head of the new office, with the impressive title of Planetary Defense Officer. “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.”
More on NASA’s new PDCO Armageddon Office
As well as its responsibilities in locating and tracking NEOs, PDCO will provide public notices of close misses by NEOs and warnings of any potential impacts. The office is also responsible for interagecy coordination across the U.S. government; in specific, participating in planning for the response to an impact threat, working in conjunction with FEMA, the Department of Defense, other federal agencies and international organizations.
Near-Earth objects are detected using a variety of ground-based telescopes around the world and NASA’s space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope. The tracking data on all NEOs identified are provided to a global database under the management of the Minor Planet Center (associated with the International Astronomical Union). After they have been detected, the orbits of all NEOS are modeled and monitored by the Center for NEO Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
Given that 90% of NEOs larger than one kilometer (around 3,000 feet) in diameter have already been found, NASA is now focused on locating orbiting rocks that are 140 meters or larger. NASA is working to locate 90% of the NEOs of this size by the end of 2020. So far, the agency’s surveys have detected close to 25% of these mid-sized but still very dangerous orbiting objects.