Could Earth survive a collision with a massive asteroid? NASA has just opened a new office to find out.
NASA knows the chances of an apocalyptic catastrophe from outer space are slim, but that hasn’t stopped the space agency from coming up with a contingency plan just in case. According to a report from CNN, NASA officials have just announced the creation of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, or PDCO, which will scan the skies in advance of any impending asteroid or meteor collision with the planet.
The new department will be led by the Planetary Defense Officer, and will operate under the Planetary Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC. The office will be tasked with detecting potentially hazardous objects, or PHOs, including asteroids and comets that come within 7.5 kilometers of the Earth’s orbital path. To qualify as a PHO, an asteroid or comet must be at least 30 meters in diameter before it could reach the surface of the planet.
The office won’t just scan the skies for PHOs on a collision course with Earth. If an asteroid or a comet were to strike a nearby neighbor like Venus or Mars, debris from the collision could be sent on a direct path towards Earth. Scientists will need to scan the solar system around the clock to keep tabs on every collision in Earth’s immediate area to ensure that nothing dangerous is coming our way.
Scientists are keeping their eyes on the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in particular. The belt contains as many as 1.9 million asteroids larger than a kilometer in diameter, and millions more that are smaller but still large enough to reach the surface of the Earth. The belt is largely made up of chunks of rock and other debris left over from the formation of the solar system, roughly 4.6 billion years ago.
If an asteroid passes Jupiter or Mars at the right angle, it could be forced out of its orbital path and sent hurdling straight for Earth. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened; geologists believe that a massive comet struck the Earth roughly 66 million years ago, leaving the Gulf of Mexico as its crater and precipitating the K-T extinction, the largest known loss of life due to a single event.
While it remains unlikely that a massive piece of space debris will collide with the Earth anytime soon, NASA researchers are doing everything in their power to prepare for the event. The agency has a budget of $50 million in 2016.
A NASA press release describing the new Planetary Defense Coordination Office can be found here.