Though a Planetary Defense Coordination Office sounds like something from a futuristic sci-fi movie containing giant lasers, alien bugs and a stereotypical hero, it is actually a very real department within NASA. Its duty? To protect planet Earth.
What is the Planetary Defense Coordination Office
The Planetary Defense Coordination Office is headed by the Planetary Defense Officer (apply within), and is run by the Planetary Science Division at NASA HQ, Washington DC. Its duty is to detect objects in space which may be a danger to Earth by getting a bit too close for comfort and would cause destruction or devastation were they to impact Earth.
It has been in the news a lot lately as it is developing a number of Planetary Defense Systems in order to help prevent future dangers such as asteroid strikes. It is due to test those systems with the passing of Asteroid 2012-TC4 on October 12th 2017, as it harmlessly whizzes past planet Earth at a relatively safe distance of 6,800km. Around 30ft-100ft in size (depending on what it crashes into before October), the asteroid is relatively small compared to the average of its type, yet is a good contender for a ‘practice shot’ by NASA.
NASA first observed Asteroid 2012-TC4 back in October 2012, almost five years ago to the day that it is due to pass Earth. It was tracked for a week and then forgotten about, and its current trajectory is unknown. We know it won’t hit Earth and will pass within a close proximity to our orbit, but apart from that the variables are unknown.
Why worry about 2012-TC4 then?
This is what makes it such a fantastic contender for a trial run of these new technologies. When we face a real asteroid threat, we will not have much notice and will not know much about its trajectories or history and therefore need the anti-asteroid technology to function well under these conditions. Asteroid 2012-TC4 offers the perfect ‘worst case scenario’ dry run for these conditions.
Fans of the movie ‘Armageddon’ will be disappointed that there will be no hunky miners or nuclear warheads to blow up the asteroid, nor space lasers to zap it into oblivion. This test run will put the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, a network of dozens of observatories, Universities and labs around the world, through its paces in order to test and optimise the technologies and science involved. Many of these Universities, labs and experts are here in Europe, but most of the observatories are elsewhere due to our famously overcast skies. Much of the actual vision and data collected will be via observatories in Peru, before being shared for analysis throughout the rest of the world.
In the event of a real imminent collision, blowing up the asteroid would be a terrible idea. That would just allow it to grapeshot the Earth, hitting it all over with hundreds or even thousands of mini-asteroids which would be not unlike nuking ourselves. It would be highly unpredictable too, which is not something you want when the entire Earth is on the line.
Instead, techniques like piloting something large near an asteroid in order to minutely alter its path could be more than enough. If detected early, altering the path by millimetres would mean that its ultimate passage near Earth would be significantly widened by hundreds of miles. Flying something heavy directly into the asteroid may also have a similar effect, but only if it doesn’t have enough force to fracture it. In a worst case scenario, NASA’s asteroid-fighting measures go the way of normal natural disaster response. If an asteroid cannot be stopped, then there are procedures in place to dictate who gets rescued and to where.
NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is no meaningless venture or empty title, either. Numerous large meteorites have made headlines recently such as the Chelyabinsk meteorite, which have caused damage upon planetfall.
Why the test is vital
This is why NASA’s tracking systems tests this October are so vital – they will help buy us time in the event of an actual projected large object collision which could make all the difference. NASA works closely with other agencies to make this happen, such as (and yet not limited to) the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency and Indian Space Research Organisation. In the future, it may not be out of the question for private interests to hold just as large a role, or a greater one, as traditional government space agencies. Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are making great strides thanks to private investment and a lack of government red tape.
Luckily, according to statistical analysis of past impacts, we are not due for a significant asteroid collision for at least another century. This should give us plenty of time for NASA to get these new systems in full working order and able to protect us from danger.