According to Arthur C. Clarke, Ringworld author Larry Niven famously said that “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.” Technically, that’s true. If Tyrannosaurs with short-sleeved white dress shirts and Triceratops in moon boots were tracking, cataloging, and making strategies for the trillions of space rocks that may one day head our way, they could still be around.
NASA knows the value of tracking civilization-killers like the one that obliterated the dinos, and today have announced the formal creation of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO). How cool does that sound?
While no Armageddon-like threats are or the horizon (as far as we know), incidents like the meteor that blew up over Chelyabinsk, Russia, which injured thousands, proved that our eyes need to be on the skies. (If that meteor hit the ground directly, Chelyabinsk would be gone.) The most pressing objects are the ones that drift close to Earth’s orbits, so-called “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs). NASA has identified 13,500 NEOs so far — sizes range from harmless to civilization-ending — but there must be thousands upon thousands more. Do they pose a risk? We won’t know until we find them.
According to the press release, the PDCO “will be responsible for supervision of all NASA-funded projects to find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth’s orbit around the sun.” And if the office does find something worthy of Bruce Willis, it will be responsible for coordinating the appropriate national or international response.
Right now, that response is….well, it depends. We haven’t really tested asteroid redirect techniques, though NASA is set to test a tractor beam method in the next decade where the Asteroid Redirect Mission will use a spacecraft’s tiny gravitational tug to change the course of a space rock.
And if there is no way to deflect a dino-killer, the PDCO will at least provide data on impact timing, location, and effects to disaster agencies like FEMA.
Going forward, NASA will be focused on finding NEOs larger than a football field with ground-based telescopes. The most recent NASA budget devotes $50 million to planetary defense, so hopefully the agency can meet its goal of finding 90 percent of these rocks by 2020.
We can categorically say that our space program is better than the dinosaurs’. Let’s hope that when it comes time to test that assertion, we’ll be ready.