NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, protecting Earth from cosmic obliteration since 2016 (supposedly)
Have you ever imagined what it might be like to look up into the sky and see a meteor, careening towards Earth before a raging trail of smoke and fire? It would be a moment of historic planetary terror. And it could happen, literally, at any moment, any day, and the universe wouldn’t even bat an eyelash. No one would miss us – there would be no one left.
Don’t fret, though, people of Earth.
There’s a government agency out there that’s keeping their eyes on the sky; protecting us from un-earthly threats like comets asteroids and meteors! They are NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), and they are supposedly defending all of life on Earth from the constant, existential threat of extinction by cosmic impact. Or are they? That’s a bold job for a government program that only gets a portion of NASA’s already limited federal funding.
Is it even possible that a federally employed commission of scientists could stop the cosmic power of universal chaos from smiting this planet into dust and hellfire? Well, unfortunately, no one at the Planetary Defense Coordination Office was available to comment on that. After three days of doggedly trying to contact someone (anyone!) at the office, and getting no answer, and no returned phone calls or emails it became clear that the entire office was busy – hopefully, hard at work scanning the skies (and not just dicking off around the water cooler).
Let’s put it into perspective, though: every single day Earth is bombarded with somewhere between 80 and 100 tons of space debris. Yes, tons – that’s at least 160,000 pounds a day. On top of that, in the last 20 years, US government sensors have also detected over 600 asteroids that have entered our atmosphere. And scientists scanning the skies for near Earth objects (NEO’s) discover roughly 500 new NEO’s larger than 140 feet every single year. Of which, there is an estimated population of 25,000 floating around our planet like cosmic icebergs, ready to sink our Earthly Titanic at a moment’s notice. The odds are stacked against us. And when you consider our track record for detection and defense… well, it isn’t exactly confidence inspiring.
Remember back in 2013, when the Cheblinski meteor hit Russia’s Ural region? That was such a huge atmospheric event that people close to it felt intense heat from the meteor’s descent, which produced a dazzling fireball in the sky. The shockwave produced as it blasted through our atmosphere was powerful enough to break glass in six different Russian cities and sent 1,500 people seeking medical attention. Luckily, no one died.
But that could have been The Big One. And scientists around the globe, including those at NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office were caught with their pants down. No one saw it coming. And in fact, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office even states (earnestly) on their frequently asked questions page that, “Given the current incompleteness of the NEO catalogue, an unpredicted impact – such as the Chelyabinsk event – could occur at any time.” Which is to say, because there are so many NEO’s floating around out there in the vast empty blackness of space, and because we haven’t catalogued all of them, we could be struck down, ruined by the god-power of some unseen, unanticipated space rock that just happens to cross Earth’s path…
But, one might argue, NASA’s Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is constantly hard at work, cataloguing more and more NEO’s every day! Maybe the hardworking staff of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office will actually detect the one that matters, before it’s too late. Then what? Because, even the PDCO admits that there isn’t an easy or straightforward solution to diverting an oncoming NEO, destined for impact. Some of these NEO’s are much too far away to reach with current technology. Others are essentially floating piles of rubble, making them hard to “push on” or divert coherently. And no, nuking these things is not an option.
“An asteroid on a trajectory to impact Earth could not be shot down in the last few minutes or even hours before impact. No known weapon system could stop the mass because of the velocity at which it travels – an average of 12 miles per second.” NASA says that the two best options for diverting an NEO from hitting Earth are: 1) a “kinetic impactor” – basically something we hit the asteroid with that changes its trajectory or slows it down. Or, 2) using a “gravity tractor”, which, according to the PDCO website entails, “gravitationally tugging on an asteroid by station-keeping a large mass near it.” Even still, both of these methods require decades of advance notice. To sufficiently prepare a response to an oncoming NEO, we need to know at least ten years before it happens. Not hours, not days, not even weeks or months – years, at the least. And, let’s be frank for a second. Because, even if NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office does catch wind of a serious, dangerous oncoming NEO, do you really think they’d tell us? Just imagine if they did: it would essentially initiate a global countdown to Armageddon. Even if they had a sufficient, effective response to mitigate that threat, people, knowing a cataclysmic asteroid was bound for Earth, would get wilder and crazier with each passing day.
The closer that moment of impact got the stranger things on this planet would get; people would start fucking strangers in the streets, looting shops, jumping off of buildings, starting structure fires, flying planes into buildings… It would be madness. And what if it missed us? What if civilized society dissolved under that threat, all control was lost and humans reverted to our savage, mean, animal roots to cover this world in blood and cum and rubble, and then the threat passed right by us? It would be difficult to forgive one other and to reconcile such an outburst of fatalistic anarchy. No. In all likelihood, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office would not tell us about a serious NEO threat. Which means, we’re in the dark either way.
Whether an asteroid impact catches us by surprise because we don’t see it, or because NASA and the Feds choose not to tell us about it, society will not likely be warned. And so, we must wait. Wait for that moment the dinosaurs experienced 65 million years ago; when the sky opens up and delivers us to an ill and terrible fate – incineration and obliteration. Or, wait until it doesn’t. Because, maybe, if everything goes right and we have decades to prepare, just maybe the Planetary Defense Coordination Office will be able to stop it and save us all from joining our Jurassic ancestors. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a handful of federally paid scientists. But, then again, who else is stepping up to the plate?