NASA’s program to detect near-Earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets that move dangerously close to our planet is now official. The space agency recently opened an office in Washington to run the program and coordinate similar efforts internationally.
So far, more than 13,000 of NEOs has been detected, of these about 95 percent were found after 1998 when NASA first provided money to NEO detection programs. According to recent statistics, about 1,500 objects are spotted every year.
John Grunsfeld who will head the new office said that both the space agency and its international partners took the threat of an asteroid collision very seriously. He mentioned the Halloween asteroid which whizzed past Earth last year and the super-fireball in Russia as at least two motives to invest in the program.
NASA’s efforts to create a global infrastructure that would monitor the skies and prevent hazards are now expanded as more agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seem interested in the project
The Washington-based Planetary Defense Coordination Office would not only detect and keep an eye on hazardous NEOs, but it would also issue alerts whenever scientific data reveals a potential threat. Through the recently opened office, the space agency would continue to improve the program on U.S. soil by teaming up with FEMA, the Pentagon, and foreign space agencies.
Scientists working for the office would be called Planetary Defense Officers.
Asteroids and comets will be detected by ground telescopes and NASA’s NEOWISE space telescope. Data gathered by the instruments would be stored by default in an international database.
The hazardous NEOs and their orbits will be tracked by scientists at the Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) in Pasadena, California, through Spitzer Space Telescope, the U.S. space agency’s InfraRed Telescope Facility and space radars.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) welcomed the new office and expressed hope that the decision to open it would continue the ‘fruitful collaboration’ among departments and agencies to analyze the problem posed by dangerous NEOs.
Until now, NEO hunters have been focused on tracking NEOs that are wider than 3,000 feet. But NASA plans to expand those efforts to space objects of at least 450 feet, which is the approximate size of a football field. NASA pledged to detect 90 percent of those smaller objects by the end of this decade.
In 2010, the cost of NASA’s NEO programs amounted to $4 million. Two years later, the programs were expanded and their budget enlarged to $20 million. In 2014, the programs totaled $40 million.
Image Source: Wikimedia
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