Meteors land on Earth frequently, but most break up as they enter our atmosphere and the resulting pieces are too small to do much damage. Once in a while, though, a larger meteor will make it closer to the planet’s surface before exploding. NASA is responding to the potential threats with a new endeavor, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). Its purpose is to determine the best way to track what the agency calls near-Earth objects (NEOs) – those are big asteroids and meteors to the rest of us. The PDCO will also work on figuring out how to stop meteors from hitting Earth – just like in the movies.
With this new effort, NASA hopes to avoid a repeat performance of incidents like the 2013 meteor disaster near Chelyabink, Russia. Then, a 59-foot-wide meteor weighing some 11,000 metric tons exploded over the town, sending fragments raining down on the community. NASA measured the bang to be 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bombing, and around 1,500 people were injured on top of widespread property damage.
“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 a statement. “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.”
Asteroid tracking isn’t a new game, and NASA reports that some 1,500 NEOs are detected each year. To date, more than 13,500 asteroids and meteors of varying sizes have been discovered, and the vast majority of those have been detected since NASA began funding surveys to look for them in 1998. The founding of the PDCO brings together a choreographed network of partnerships, as astronomers use ground-based telescopes and NASA’s space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope to spot NEOs, and then feed the data into a global database for international use. NASA reports that the funding used to back the NEO Observations Program, under which these activities take place, will continue as the program is absorbed by the new PDCO.
Images via Rob Ratkowski/University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and NASA