The Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) will take the reigns of NASA’s current efforts to monitor near-Earth objects (NEO) and arrange with other nations and/or federal agencies if the time comes to prepare for impact.
NASA defines near-Earth objects as "comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth's neighborhood". Comets are normally formed in the cold outer planetary system, while asteroids are formed in the warmer inner solar system, somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Of the 13,500 total NEOs detected so far, roughly 95% of them were discovered by NASA-funded surveys developed over 15 years ago, according to NASA.
Being that 90% of NEOs larger than 3,000 feet in diameter have been detected already, NASA’s now trying to raise the bar and find 90% of mid-sized objects (about 450 feet or larger) by 2020, according to ValueWalk.
Longtime NEO program executive Lindley Johnson will now be the lead program executive of the office, donning the 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,” said Johnson in a recent NASA release.
The PDCO is just another addition to NASA’s long-term defense goals to prevent a catastrophic impact. Other measures include utilizing the National Nuclear Security Administration to develop a plan to use nuclear weapons to intercept and deflect an asteroid, according to the New York Times.
Not only is the chance of a collision by an NEO highly unlikely—most cases will be false alarms—but the possibility of a collision will be known for several years in advance. The advanced notice will give experts a chance to use existing technology to deflect the threatening object.
However, if intervention isn't a possibility, NASA would work to protect those most affected by an impact by preparing FEMA to assist emergency response operations.
"FEMA is dedicated to protecting against all hazards, and the launch of the coordination office will ensure early detection and warning capability, and will further enhance FEMA’s collaborative relationship with NASA,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said in a NASA statement.