Nasa to defend Earth from asteroid threats
Nasa's logo at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida Getty Images

Nasa is getting serious about protecting the Earth against potential threats from asteroid. The space agency has formed a Planetary Defence Coordination Office (PDCO) that will be responsible for tracking and detecting asteroid related activities.

The PDCO will collaborate with Nasa's Science Mission Directorate, which will manage all future projects – funded by the space research organisation – related to asteroid monitoring and detection. The space agency will keep track of all asteroids that are closer to Earth to detect and prepare against incoming collision threats.

The organisation will also alert US agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, if it detects an impending impact.

Ever since the space agency started its asteroid detection surveys in 1998, over 13,500 near-Earth objects (NEOs) of different shapes and sizes have been discovered. Nasa's internal statistics show nearly 1,500 NEOs are detected each year.

Acting manager of Nasa's Near Earth Object Observation Program, Dr Kelly Fast said, "NEOs hit the Earth every day. Asteroid and comet fragments, mostly the size of grains of sand, bombard the Earth at the rate of more than 100 tons a day."

He added that most NEOs are relatively small and disintegrate upon impact with the Earth's atmosphere. However, this is not always the case. Some larger sized NEOs – around 30 to 50 metres in size – can survive the descent and cause massive damage upon landing on Earth. "Keeping track of such objects that closely approach Earth's orbit is a primary role of PDCO", Dr Fast explained.

The organisation's long-term goals will involve developing new technologies for planetary defences. This will enable scientists to deflect or redirect incoming, threat-labelled NEOs. The space agency has already commenced working on its Asteroid Redirect Mission and it hopes to launch a spacecraft to an asteroid to collect samples and eventually redirect it to orbit the moon.

In 2022, Nasa and the European Space Agency will launch a joint Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, which will work on developing a method to deflect asteroids by hitting them with a spacecraft.