Astronomers building asteroid early-warning system

Artist's illustration of a meteor striking the Earth (Credit: Getty Images)Last Friday's meteorite strike in Russia was quite the wake-up call to just how dangerous the space around us is, and scientists around the world aren't hitting the snooze button on the issue. In fact, to help protect us for the future, one group of astronomers from the University of Hawaii is building ATLAS — Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System — to scan the night skies and warn us of impending impacts.

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Scheduled to be completed within two years, ATLAS will consist of a total of eight small telescopes, split between two different observatories, roughly 60 kms apart on the Hawaiian Islands. These telescopes will sweep the skies twice every night, taking pictures as they do, and these pictures will be processed by computers that can filter through 500 megabytes of data every minute, to find anything in the sky that has moved since the last image was taken of that area.

Complementary to the Pan-STARRS project (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System), which is designed to take longer and deeper scans of the sky to find objects further away that pose a threat and thus offer us a chance to deflect these objects in time, the focus of ATLAS will be to quickly locate much smaller objects that pose an immediate danger to us and give us ample warning to act. The system could provide advanced notice of a week for objects up to 50 meters wide (something that would take out a city), and as much as three weeks for objects closer to 150 m across (which would do serious damage on a national scale).

One to three weeks doesn't seem like a lot of time, and from the perspective of trying to deflect an incoming object it isn't.

"That's enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure, and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts," said John Tonry, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii, according to Space.com.

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Although the unnamed 17-m-wide meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk did over $33 million in damages (all apparently from the shock wave the explosion produced), if it had been more on the scale of asteroid 2012 DA14 — roughly 20m wide by 40m long, with a mass of 40,000 metric tons — it would have exploded closer to the ground, and with about 10 times the force, potentially leveling buildings and causing thousands of deaths. Something around 150 m wide would have exploded only 1 kilometre above the ground, with a force equal to a 500 megaton bomb, obliterating the entire city and causing massive damage out to 150 kms away.

According to Tonry, ATLAS wouldn't just look for nearby meteors and asteroids, though. It would scan for other phenomena that could potentially pose a threat to us or hint at approaching dangers — space debris, asteroid collisions in the main belt, dwarf planets, and even supernovas, quasars, gravitational lensing events and gravity waves.

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