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Planet-bonking rock hunt armed with humanity's cruellest weapon: bureaucracy

NASA launches Planetary Defense Coordination Office to find near-Earth objects

By Richard Chirgwin, 11 Jan 2016

Criticised in 2014 for lax control over how it spent its asteroid-detection dollars, NASA has formalised its response, announcing last week the launch of a Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

The 2014 audit (PDF) said NASA's asteroid-detection work was “a loosely structured conglomerate of research activities that are not well integrated”, and as a result “oversight, objectives, and established milestones” were lacking.

That put its stated mandate to try and locate “90 per cent” of all near-Earth objects (NEOs) larger than 140 metres by 2020 out of reach, the audit found. NASA says since it started work in 2005 on identifying sub-140 metre asteroids, it's spotted 25 per cent of its 2020 target.

Announcing the new organisation, NASA says the office will oversee all efforts to “find and characterise” NEOs the agency funds, and coordinate with other agencies if a planet-killer turns up.

As NASA's John Grunsfeld noted, “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 new office is about oversight and transparency rather than kicking off a new activity: most of the roughly 13,000 NEOs discovered since 1995 have been discovered with NASA's help.

However, instead of being a program trying to pluck lots of feathers from a goose worth only US$4 million in 2010, the asteroid-detection budget has expanded to $50 million for fiscal year 2016.

As well as direct funding, NASA's rock-spotting resources include the NEOWISE infrared space telescope, with its Center for NEO Studies in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on orbit prediction. Its InfraRed Telescope Facility, Spitzer Space Telescope, and the joint NASA-National Science Foundation interplanetary radars help characterise discoveries.

The Chelyabinsk object measured an estimated 20 metres, while the Tunguska event of 1908 involved an object estimated between 60 metres and 190 metres, depending on whether it was a rocky asteroid or a fluffy meteor. ®