NASA establishes office to guard against extinction-level asteroids

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If and when the interplanetary asteroid apocalypse comes, NASA plans to be prepared.

In a little noticed move this week, the space agency announced that it had created a directorate for "detecting and tracking near earth objects (NEOs)."

The new Planetary Defense Coordination Office—which, despite its science fiction-sounding name, is part of a very real effort to ward off the potentially deadly impact of asteroids that may hit the planet—is charged with supervising "all NASA-funded projects to find and characterize asteroids and comets that pass near Earth's orbit around the sun."

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NASA was careful not to say there was an imminent threat, though it stated that more than 13,500 NEOs had been discovered to date, and about 1,500 were detected annually by the space agency. In 2013, the planet had a near-brush with a "super fireball" meteor that entered the Earth's atmosphere near Chelyabinsk, Russia.

"Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its inter-agency partners, and the global community take very seriously," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

The Chelyabinsk event and a more recent incident on Halloween "remind us of why we need to remain vigilant, and keep our eyes to the sky," he added.

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In October, a top NASA scientist told CNBC that the potential for an asteroid wreaking havoc on Earth was one of the reasons behind the agency's push to explore Mars.

Jim Greene told CNBC that the solar system was rife with dangers from outer space, including potential "planet killer" asteroids that could come within 5 million miles of the Earth within the next 100 years.

NASA said that the recently passed fiscal year 2016 federal budget included some $50 million for observing NEOs and the new PDCO—a more than tenfold increase in funding since President Barack Obama took office.