UH astronomers developing system to identify dangerous asteroids

February 21, 2013  |   |  Comments
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ATLAS project head John Tonry with a conceptual drawing for an ATLAS telescope. (Images courtesy of the Institute for Astronomy)

ATLAS project head John Tonry with a conceptual drawing for an ATLAS telescope. (Images courtesy of the Institute for Astronomy)

With the aid of a $5 million grant from NASA, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa team of astronomers is developing ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) to identify dangerous asteroids before their final plunge to Earth.

The Institute for Astronomy’s team is on track to build and operate an asteroid detection system that will patrol the visible sky twice a night looking for faint objects moving through space. Astronomers expect the system to be fully operational by the end of 2015.

The team predicts the system will offer a one-week warning for a 50-yard diameter asteroid or “city killer” and three weeks for a 150 yard-diameter “county killer.”

“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 UH Mānoa astronomer and ATLAS project head John Tonry.

ATLAS will complement the Institute for Astronomy’s Pan-STARRS project, a system that searches for large “killer asteroids” years, decades and even centuries before impact with Earth. Whereas Pan-STARRS takes a month to complete one sweep of the sky in a deep but narrow survey, ATLAS will search the sky in a closer and wider path to help identify the smaller asteroids that hit Earth much more frequently.

As well as searching for asteroids, ATLAS will also look for dwarf planets, supernova explosions and flashes of light that occur when a star is gobbled up by a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy.

Read the UH Mānoa Institute for Astronomy news release for more about the project.

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Category: Research

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