The term planetary defense officer sounds like a high-ranking position in a cosmic task force from a Marvel comic book.
But actually, this is a real job title for NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office or PDCO.
As its name suggests, the PDCO is responsible for projects aimed at protecting the Earth from collisions with objects from space such as comets or asteroids. Heading this newly established office, which falls under NASA's Planetary Science Division, is Lindley Johnson.
Johnson earned the title and position of planetary defense officer due to his years of service working for NASA's near-Earth object program. Under his leadership, the PDCO will carry out various initiatives designed to identify cosmic objects that are on a collision course with Earth.
"The formal establishment of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office makes it evident that the agency is committed to perform leadership in national and international efforts for detection of these natural impact hazards, and to be engaged in planning if there is a need for planetary defense," Johnson said in NASA's press release.
According to the space agency, since it began monitoring near-Earth objects in 1998, over 13,500 whizzing objects have already been detected. On average, around 1,500 of these objects pass by Earth each year. Many of these, or about 90 percent, are around one kilometer long.
Due to the dangers that they pose to the people of Earth, NASA has stepped up its efforts in order to better monitor passing asteroids and comets. But aside from merely studying them, the space agency is also working on plans to protect the world from these massive and potentially destructive objects. This is why a budget of $50 million was allocated for the PDCO, which is way more than the $4 million funding it had back in 2010, according to the Washington Post.
"Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously," John Grunsfeld of the agency's Science Mission Directorate said in a statement.
NASA did not go into the exact details of the future projects that its planetary defense officer will oversee. But, according to the agency, these mainly involve developing new technology for redirecting or deflecting oncoming objects.
These could include the agency's Asteroid Redirect Mission, which involves the use of the gravity tractor method, and NASA and the European Space Agency's joint project called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment.