NASA's newest branch has one job: Protect the Planet from humongous asteroids

No, it’s not something out of Armageddon — NASA really is serious about so-called near-Earth objects (NEOs). It’s so serious, in fact, that there is now a whole office within the agency dedicated to tracking potentially threatening asteroids and comets. Not only does the new Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) track these objects, but it’s also tasked with working with other governments on potential mitigation strategies should a threat arise.

About 1,500 new NEOs are detected every year, with a total of about 13,500 found so far. While chances of a direct hit that causes widespread destruction are pretty minute (about one every thousand years) smaller meteor impacts happen with far greater frequency, about once every five years or so.

“Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” NASA’s John Grunsfeld says. “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.”

The office plans to issue warnings for close-by encounters as well as potential impacts as the need arises. It also will work with federal, state, and local emergency management offices on contingency plans should an asteroid strike. One of the PDCO’s key goals is the improved detection of smaller meteors, like the ones that caused the events Grunsfeld speaks of.

Approximately 90 percent of NEOs that are one kilometer or larger have been identified, which is the size that scientists believe is the minimum for widespread extinction events. However, only a quarter of the smaller NEOs are known, and these medium-sized ones can still kill thousands when they hit Earth — the most recent of which is thought to have occurred in Ch’ing-yang, China in 1490. NASA wants to have 90 percent of these asteroids catalogued by 2020.

It is quite possible however, even with NASA’s strengthened commitment to NEOs, that an impact may occur with little or no warning, it admits. While millions more in federal money is set to pour into detection efforts, the science of NEO detection is still in its infancy and by no means perfect.

The NASA Inspector General’s office slammed the agency’s detection work as recently as September 2014, citing a poor organizational structure that lacked “overarching program oversight, objectives and established milestones to track progress.” At that time, it was feared that NASA would miss its 2020 goal for 90 percent detection — but now, with a bigger budget and a purpose-built asteroid detection branch, that goal is looking much more attainable.

Emerging Tech

What would it take to build a Matrix-level simulation of reality?

What would it take, technologically speaking, to build a real version of the Matrix? We definitely don't have the technical abilities to do that now, but we're rapidly approaching the point that we will. In this article, MIT computer…
Health & Fitness

Forget foam. This fluid-filled helmet mimics your brain to protect your head

Fluid Inside is a protective system for designed to prevent injuries not only to the skull of an athlete but brain trauma as well using an innovative approach that is adaptable to cycling, skiing, hockey, and other sports.
Emerging Tech

Whose name should we etch on the Mars 2020 rover? NASA wants a vote

Dream of making it to Mars? NASA has opened up a new public outreach program to let people send their names to the Red Planet, as an engraving on a silicon chip launched with the Mars 2020 rover.

FCC chairman and commissioner support the T-Mobile and Sprint merger

T-Mobile and Sprint are getting closer to merging. After a few failed attempts, the two companies announced their merger at the start of 2018. The new T-Mobile could be better positioned to take on the likes of Verizon and AT&T.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX joins internet-from-space race with launch of 60 Starlink satellites

SpaceX has launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying its first batch of Starlink satellites for its ambitious internet-from-space project. The payload, SpaceX's heaviest to date, successfully deployed an hour after liftoff.
Emerging Tech

The best solar chargers for your phone, tablet, and other battery-powered gear

Looking for a gizmo that can help you charge your phone while on the go? Here, we've outlined the best solar chargers on the market, whether you're looking to charge your phone once, twice, or three times over.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Tricked-out e-scooters and bike lights that lock

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

This plane-pulling robo-dog makes Boston Dynamics’ Spot look scrawny

A robot dog created by researchers at Italy’s Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia showed off its impressive ability to pull a three-ton airplane down a runway. Check it out in action.
Emerging Tech

Scientists discover unexpected underwater volcano off the coast of Africa

Geologists first noticed something unusual in the Indian Ocean in November last year, when they detected a massive seismic event. Now further research has revealed that the source of the seismic activity is an enormous underwater volcano.
Emerging Tech

Jupiter’s vast magnetic field stretches over time, driven by atmospheric wind

Jupiter has the most powerful magnetic field in our Solar System, 18,000 times as strong as Earth's. Now scientists have discovered that the field changes over time, in an effect called secular variation.
Emerging Tech

Three rare exocomets spotted in orbit around a nearby star

Scientists have spotted three exocomets, or comets outside of our Solar System, in orbit around a bright young star called Beta Pictoris in the constellation of Pictor using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite (TESS).
Emerging Tech

Motion-sensing shrubs and robo-Venus flytraps: Inside the world of Cyborg Botany

From motion-sensing plants to a Venus Flytrap you control using a computer, Harpreet Sareen is the brains behind a weird field called Cyborg Botany. Here's why he believes it matters.
Emerging Tech

Scientists find organic matter from outer space in 3.3-billion-year-old rocks

Scientists have located organic matter that is extraterrestrial in origin, in 3.3 billion year old rocks. This supports the theory that organic chemicals arrived on our planet aboard a meteorite and created the building blocks for life.
Emerging Tech

This galaxy, Messier 90, appears blue because it’s traveling toward us

A new Hubble image has been released showing Messier 90, 60 million light-years away in the Virgo Cluster. An unusual feature of Messier 90 is it is traveling towards the Milky Way, not away from it.