The office will track and classify all comets and asteroids that pass near the Earth, warn of potential impact, and plan and co-ordinate an intergovernmental global response in the case of a pending catastrophe.
Nasa has been working on planetary defence for some time, in the form of monitoring all near-Earth objects (NEOs). The Planetary Defence Coordination Office, which was conceived in 2010, will bring together 54 ongoing tracking projects and nine studies into averting asteroid impact. These include developing a means to redirect asteroids using the gravity tractor method to divert the asteroid form its (collision) path.
In case you're wondering: an asteroid is made up of metal and rock, and a comet is ice, dust and rocky material. So now you know.
In a worst-case scenario, Nasa's expertise would be used to predict the exact location of imapct, and inform emergency services around the world.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for Nasa's science mission directorate in Washington – the department that runs the Planetary Science Division, which includes the new Planetary Defence office – said:
Asteroid detection, tracking and defence of our planet is something that Nasa, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously.
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.
Lindley Johnson will head of the department, with a job title we'd all like to have on our business cards: Planetary Defence Officer.
Nasa said more than 13,500 near-Earth objects have been discovered to date and it has identified more than 90 per cent of all NEOs measuring over a kilometre. The department is focused on finding 90 per cent NEOs larger than a football pitch by the end of 2020.
In the recently passed 2016 federal budget, funding for the Planetary Defence Coordination Office was set at $50m.