With a name like the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, you’d think that NASA’s new program was some kind of badass defense force meant to protect us from alien invaders, but the reality is a bit less exciting. Instead of protecting us from alien invaders, the program is meant to protect us from asteroids and comets, and will be handling all of NASA’s projects relating to the searching and characterization of these floating chunks of space matter, or at least, the ones that pass near the trajectory of our planet’s orbit. In the event that one of them poses a threat to us, the program is the one that’s responsible for coordinating a response, and even if there’s nothing we can do to prevent an impact, we can still make proper preparations for it.
Lindley Johnson has an enviable job title as the first person whose resume will bear the line: “NASA Designated Planetary Defense Officer.” Johnson is the tip of a very big iceberg of awesome as NASA has formalized its program for detecting and tracking near-Earth objects (“NEOs”) under the name title of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The new office will be responsible for all of NASA’s projects to find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near the trajectory of Earth’s orbit. And if any threats are detected, it will be the office’s role to coordinate a response. “Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in the office’s announcement. “While there are no known impact threats at this time, the 2013 Chelyabinsk super-fireball and the recent Halloween Asteroid’s close approach remind us of why we need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes to the sky.” It has its work cut out for it. Since NASA started funding surveys in 1998, more than 13,500 near-Earth objects have been discovered with about 1,500 new ones identified every year. Admittedly, every so often, one buzzes the atmosphere like the 1,300-foot wide asteroid that passed us last Halloween. But others are carrying frozen, usable water we could someday mine for space exploration and use here on Earth.