NASA has started a new programme for detecting and tracking near-Earth objects (NEOs) - comets and asteroids that pass by the Earth’s orbit - to ward off any potential impact threats to our planet.
More than 13,500 near-Earth objects of all sizes have been discovered to date - over 95 per cent of them since NASA-funded surveys began in 1998. About 1,500 NEOs are now detected each year.
The Planetary Defence Coordination Office will take a leading role in coordinating inter-agency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats.
“Asteroid detection, tracking and defence of our planet is something that NASA, its inter-agency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“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,” Grunsfeld said.
In addition to detecting and tracking potentially hazardous objects, the office will issue notices of close passes and warnings of any detected potential impacts, based on credible science data.
“The formal establishment of the Planetary Defence 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 defence,” said Lindley Johnson, lead programme executive for the office.
Astronomers detect near-Earth objects using ground-based telescopes around the world as well as NASA’s space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope.
Tracking data are provided to a global database maintained by the Minor Planet Centre.
Once detected, orbits are precisely predicted and monitored by the Centre for NEO Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
Select NEOs are further characterised by assets such as NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility, Spitzer Space Telescope and interplanetary radars operated by NASA and the National Science Foundation.
With more than 90 per cent of NEOs larger than one kilometre already discovered, NASA is now focused on finding objects that are slightly bigger than a football field - 140 metres or larger.