Conceptual drawing for an ATLAS telescope. The project would use two
of these 20-inch telescopes. Credit: UH/IfA

An Asteroid Alert System

Source: University of Hawaii press release

Meteorites, Comets and Asteroids
Posted: 02/17/13
Summary: Astronomers are developing a new system to identify dangerous asteroids before their final plunge to Earth. The asteroid detection system that will patrol the visible sky twice a night looking for faint objects moving through space.

In the realm of potential planetary disasters, asteroids are among the ones to fear — like the meteorite that hit Russia, they can inflict serious damage on Earth.

With the aid of a $5-million grant from NASA, a University of Hawaii team of astronomers is developing ATLAS, a system to identify dangerous asteroids before their final plunge to Earth.

The 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.

ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) will operate up to 8 small telescopes, each fitted with cameras of up to 100 megapixels, on mounts housed at one or two locations in the Hawaiian Islands.

Astronomers expect the system to be fully operational by the end of 2015.

Astronomer John Tonry compared ATLAS’s sensitivity to detecting a match flame in New York City when viewed from San Francisco.

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,” Tonry said.

The typical asteroid is a “rubble pile” — a large collection of rocks and dust.

Most asteroids reside in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, though some, called near-Earth objects, can orbit much closer to Earth.

Read more: An Asteroid Alert System — Astrobiology Magazine.

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