It’s not hard to find innovative job titles in Corporate America – Apple has the genius, eBay has the chief curator and AOL has the digital prophet. But NASA may have just topped all of them with a truly out-of-this-world innovation title: planetary defense officer.
The job description for planetary defense officer, the official title for the head of NASA’s newly formed Planetary Defense Coordination Office, essentially boils down to this: Protect the planet from collisions with a near-Earth object such as an asteroid or comet. You know, just like in the movies Armageddon or Deep Impact, where a near-Earth object threatens to obliterate the planet.
The current holder of the planetary defense officer position is Lindley Johnson, a longtime near-Earth object program executive at NASA, who will now head up the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The office remains within NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington. The group is responsible for supervision of all projects to detect and track potentially hazardous objects such as asteroids and comets that pass near Earth’s orbit.
The officer will also play a leading role in coordinating interagency and intergovernmental efforts in response to any potential impact threats, including coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In a Hollywood movie, the planetary defense officer would likely be one of the individuals on the call to the White House, informing the president of a potential catastrophic deep impact.
“The formal establishment of the Planetary Defense 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 defense,” said Johnson.
The creation of the office is not just idle speculation or a bit of whimsy on NASA’s behalf. According to NASA, nearly 1,500 near-Earth objects are detected each year. To date, more than 13,500 near-Earth objects have been discovered, with 95 percent of them having been discovered after NASA officially began tracking them in 1998. In fiscal year 2016, NASA has a budget of $50 million for observation of such objects and planetary defense, up more than tenfold since 2010, when NASA’s program operated on a budget of $4 million.
“Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Think of the Earth as being a target in a cosmic shooting gallery. There are literally thousands of objects that have the potential to strike the planet, but most of them pass blissfully by, millions of miles off target. Using NASA’s Asteroid Tracking Widget, it’s possible to check out the biggest upcoming near-Earth object approaches. Over the next few weeks, asteroids the size of passenger planes and city buses will whizz past the Earth, and most of us will never know or realize it. (By way of comparison, the asteroid in Armageddon was the size of Texas, making it much easier to track.)
When these objects pass too close to the Earth, though, they’re front-page news. Two that made headlines recently are the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteoroid and the so-called “Halloween Asteroid” of 2015. The Chelyabinsk meteoroid that exploded over the skies of Siberia in 2013 is an example of what NASA is trying to detect and track. Imagine if pieces of that meteoroid had exploded over New York or Washington instead of over Siberia — it would be like a scene out of Armageddon, when chunks of the asteroid started to impact midtown Manhattan.
And if the Planetary Defense Officer found that a near-Earth object was really on a trajectory to collide with the earth? There’s not much he or she would be able to do about it other than issue an early warning and alert FEMA about timing, location and potential effects from impact. In a Hollywood movie, there’s always a top-secret nuclear weapon to blast the asteroid or a team of misfit astronauts led by Bruce Willis that’s ready to take on the asteroid. For now, there’s not really a Plan B.
But that could change soon. NASA is developing innovative plans for asteroid capture and asteroid redirect missions that could launch as early as the mid-2020s. NASA’s goal is to develop technology and techniques for deflecting or redirecting objects that are determined to be on an impact course with Earth. For example, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission hopes to demonstrate the effectiveness of the gravity tractor method of planetary defense, using the mass of another object (a boulder) to pull an asteroid slightly from its original orbital path so it won’t collide with the Earth.
Hopefully, between now and then, there aren’t any objects from the cosmic shooting gallery that actually impact target Earth.