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NASA forms office to protect Earth from asteroids

NASA is taking a new step to help detect and track asteroids hurtling near Earth. The space agency announced the creation of a Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to coordinate efforts.

The central office will manage all NASA-funded projects to detect, monitor and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth's orbit. If an actual impact threat is detected, the office will also coordinate NASA's response with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies.

"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 in Washington, 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."

NASA says there have been more than 13,500 Near Earth Objects [NEOs] of varying sizes discovered since NASA-funded surveys began in 1998. According to current NASA data, roughly 1,500 NEOs are detected each year.

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"NEOs hit the Earth every day. Asteroid and comet fragments, mostly the size of grains of sand, bombard the Earth at the rate of more than 100 tons a day," Dr. Kelly Fast, acting program manager for NASA's Near Earth Object Observations Program in Washington, D.C., told CBS News in an email. "Although the vast majority of NEOs that enter Earth's atmosphere disintegrate before reaching the surface, those that are larger than around 30 to 50 meters in size may survive the descent and cause widespread damage in and around their impact sites. Keeping track of such objects that closely approach Earth's orbit is a primary role of PDCO."

Most asteroid detection is done with Earth-based telescopes by scientists, astronomers and even amateur observers. NASA also uses its space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope. Tracking data is sent to a global database that is managed by the Minor Planet Center. The Center for NEO Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, predicts and monitors the orbits of all NEOs.

If needed, further research is conducted at facilities such as NASA's InfraRed Telescope Facility, Spitzer Space Telescope and the National Science Foundation. (Any further research into NEOs is organized and funded by NASA's NEO Observations program, which will become a research program under the new office.)

NASA believes researchers have already discovered more than 90 percent of NEOs larger than 3,000 feet. The new office will focus on finding mid-sized but still potentially hazardous objects that are 450 feet or larger.

The organization's long-term planetary defense goals will focus on developing technologies and techniques for deflecting or redirecting objects that pose a threat of impacting Earth. Such techniques include NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission, which plans to launch a spacecraft to an asteroid where it will capture a boulder for later analysis and redirect the asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon. The joint NASA-European Space Agency Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission scheduled for 2022 will test the ability to redirect an asteroid by hitting it with a spacecraft.

If the new office finds that there is no way to intervene with an asteroid impacting Earth, NASA would provide expert advice and data to FEMA and other government agencies so that they can prepare for an emergency response.

"FEMA is dedicated to protecting against all hazards, and the launch of the coordination office will ensure early detection and warning capability, and will further enhance FEMA's collaborative relationship with NASA," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, said in a statement.

The National Science Foundation, which supports research and education in science, says that greater transparency in asteroid detection and mitigation efforts will be helpful. "NSF welcomes the increased visibility afforded to this critical activity," Nigel Sharp, program director in the agency's Division of Astronomical Sciences, said in a press release. "We look forward to continuing the fruitful collaboration across the agencies to bring all of our resources -- both ground-based and space-based -- to the study of this important problem."

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