This Asteroid Hunter Is Tasked With Saving Earth from Killer Impacts

Rei Watanabe. Image MOTHERBOARD
Lindley Johnson is NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer and in many ways, the fate of the Earth rests in his hands. But he’s not stressed about it.

By Daniel Oberhaus | MOTHERBOARD

Every day, Earth is pummeled by thousands of pieces of space rock. Most burn up on their descent to Earth, occasionally creating a brilliant cosmic firework display such as the annual Perseids meteor shower, but on rare occasions, a piece of an asteroid will be large enough to survive passage through the atmosphere. Examples include the 2013 meteor that dramatically exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, or the 1908 Tunguska event that wiped out 800 square miles of Siberian forest.

Although these types of events are exceedingly rare—to say nothing of epoch-defining collisions like the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs—NASA wants to make sure we’re ready should astronomers ever discover a killer asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

Enter Lindley Johnson, a former member of the Air Force’s space surveillance team and, for several years, the sole member of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation program, which is responsible for tracking and cataloging large asteroids in our solar system.

As NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, Johnson is responsible for the fate of human civilization, at least as far as asteroids are concerned. But Johnson said this large responsibility doesn’t keep him up at night.

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