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NASA Establishes Planetary Defense Coordination Office

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jan-2016
Updated: 08-Jan-2016 11:54 AM

NASA formally established a Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) today.  It will not only consolidate supervision of NASA's various asteroid and comet Near Earth Object (NEO) detection and tracking programs, but coordinate with other government agencies to respond to any potential threats.

PDCO is part of the planetary science division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate and will be led by Lindley Johnson, NASA's long-time Near Earth Object Observations (NEOO) program executive. Johnson adds Planetary Defense Officer (PDO) to his title. (The PDO is distinct from NASA's Planetary Protection Officer, Cassie Conley.  Her responsibilities deal with forward and back contamination -- ensuring NASA does all it can to protect other solar system bodies from becoming contaminated by Earth organisms as humans and robotic spacecraft venture away from our planet and to protect Earth from alien organisms when samples of other solar system bodies are brought back here.)

NASA's efforts to find, track and catalog potentially Earth-threatening NEOs largely date back to 1998 when Congress directed NASA to find 90 percent of potentially hazardous NEOs 1-kilometer or more in diameter within 10 years.  NASA met that goal.  In 2005 Congress directed that NASA discover 90 percent of those that are 140-meters or more in diameter by 2020.  NASA is still working on that and better instruments are needed to achieve that goal.  Annual funding for NASA's NEO programs has increased from $4 million to $50 million since 2010.

A 2014 report from NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the NEO program's "existing structure and resources are inadequate to provide efficient, effective, and transparent program management."  At that time, the OIG said "in addition to limited personnel, the NEO Program lacks a plan with integrated milestones, defined objectives, and cost and schedule estimates to assist in tracking and attaining Program goals."  

Creation of the PDCO is partially in response to those concerns, though earlier reports from the National Research Council and an ad hoc Task Force of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) also played a role.  The recommendation to form a "Planetary Defense Coordination Office" can be found in the 2010 NAC Task Force report, chaired by former astronauts Tom Jones and Rusty Schweickert.

How best to organize NASA is one part of the issue. Another is what to do if, in fact, a NEO is on a collision course with Earth.  Mitigating such a threat would involve both domestic and international institutions.

Domestically, in the 2008 NASA Authorization Act, Congress required the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to determine federal agency responsibilities in the event a NEO might collide with Earth.  In 2010, OSTP issued guidance that NASA is formally responsible for determining if there is a threat and thereupon notifying the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the State Department, the Department of Defense's Joint Space Operations Center, and other relevant federal officials.

Today's announcement of the PDCO says that it will improve and expand on NASA's worldwide planning for planetary defense working with FEMA and other federal agencies and departments.  Johnson said in the announcement that the establishment of PDCO "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."  The United States already has been leading efforts at discussing these issues internationally, especially through the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. 

Public awareness of the threat posed by asteroids moved from Hollywood movies to real life in 2013 when a meteor exploded low in Earth's atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, causing substantial property damage and injuries (primarily from flying glass from windows broken by the sonic boom it created). 

Meteors are space rocks -- asteroids or pieces of them -- that enter Earth's atmosphere.  Most disintegrate as they travel down through the atmosphere causing meteor showers.   Some survive ("meteorites") all the way to the surface often becoming collectors items or objects for scientific study.   Pieces large enough to be destructive that reach the surface or explode above it are more rare. The major concern is that a very large asteroid might impact Earth, causing regional or global devastation.  Many scientists believe that an asteroid (or comet) impact was responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, for example.

Asteroids fly past Earth routinely and NASA has a downloadable asteroid widget that lists the next five upcoming close approaches.


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