In a move that could easily double as a plotline in a sci-fi flick, NASA has created a task force that will be charged with scouting for asteroids and other potentially devastating threats to planet Earth. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) will manage projects that seek to "find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth's orbit around the sun" and liaise with federal agencies to coordinate the appropriate response, according to NASA.
"Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. "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."
Of the 13,500 near-Earth objects (NEOs) detected thus far, more than 95% of them have been tracked down since 1998, through NASA surveys—and each year sees the discovery of another 1,500 NEOs. Coupled with the fact that, by and large, NASA has only spotted asteroids of significant girth—think 3,000 feet or bigger—those numbers more than justify pouring resources into PDCO. (The agency has only discovered about 20% of asteroids that are 450 feet or bigger, about the size of a football field.)
In other words, NASA is aware of the NEOs that may wipe out Earth altogether, but it has yet to find many of the asteroids that could put a (big) dent in our home planet. The Chelyabinsk meteor that Grunsfeld referenced, which struck the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia in early 2013, was 55 feet wide and injured about 1,000 people. And the asteroid flyby from this past Halloween—the rock clocked in at a whopping 1,300 feet—came almost as close to Earth as the moon's orbit—a distance that NASA said posed no threat but was "relatively close by celestial standards."