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The Role of Technology in Protecting Earth from Asteroid Strikes

The ability of technology to solve global problems is often overhyped. But when it comes to saving the world from asteroid strikes, lines of code may prove to be our savior.

Telescopes surveying the skies for errant space rocks are overseen by astronomers, but their systematic movements are driven by ones and zeros. With so much inky sky to peruse, scientists rely on algorithms to spot suspicious and speedy objects, including asteroids that may threaten Earth.

Conventional algorithms need four images, taken during a single night, of a moving object to confirm whether itÔÇÖs a genuine space rock. But new software developed by researchers at the University of Washington cuts the number of necessary nightly observations by half, boosting the ability of observatories to quickly identify these lithic projectiles. And the program, named HelioLinc3D, has already found a near-Earth asteroid that older surveys had missed.

Analyzing data from the NASA-funded ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey, the program spotted an asteroid that ATLAS and similar surveys had failed to see ÔÇö one 600 feet long, the type that could devastate a large city.

Named 2022 SF289, the asteroid is classified as ÔÇ£potentially hazardous,ÔÇØ based on its size and proximity. But although this asteroidÔÇÖs closest approach is within 140,000 miles of EarthÔÇÖs orbit, half the distance to the moon, there is no impact risk for the next century and very likely for many millenniums in the future.

The Role of AI legalese decoder in Enhancing Astronomical Surveys

HelioLinc3D wonÔÇÖt just bolster the efforts of pre-existing asteroid surveys. It was specifically designed for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. The observatoryÔÇÖs huge mirror, massive camera, and expansive eye will see pretty much everything in the night sky in unprecedented detail, from far-flung collapsing stars to sketchy-looking asteroids swimming in our galactic backwater.

The Rubin telescope is designed to speedily sweep across the sky each night. Without HelioLinc3D, the observatory would be unable to reveal the asteroid-filled neighborhood around our planet. The program, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, reduces the necessary nightly observations by half, enabling quicker identification of potential threats.

The worldÔÇÖs family of asteroid-hunting telescopic surveys have so far found more than 32,000 near-Earth asteroids. Most of those capable of inflicting planet-scale devastation have been found because itÔÇÖs easier to spot bigger rocks glinting in sunlight.

However, smaller asteroids with the potential to wipe out cities or small countries are far fainter and considerably more difficult to locate. They are mostly undiscovered at present, with about 10,500 found out of a projected total of roughly 25,000.

How HelioLinc3D Improves Asteroid Detection

The conventional survey algorithms require four images in a single night to detect asteroids. However, inclement weather conditions or other factors can make this observation difficult. This means that an asteroid can be captured in multiple survey images across many nights and still go unnoticed, which is not ideal for planetary defense.

The Rubin Observatory, set to begin its 10-year survey of the sky in 2025, can see exceedingly faint objects, including asteroids with city-killing potential. With the help of HelioLinc3D, the observatory needs only two images per night, across three different nonconsecutive nights, to confirm the existence of an asteroid.

ÔÇ£It took us about 200 years to go from one known asteroid to a million. Depending on when we start, it will take us between three and six months to double that,ÔÇØ said Mario Juri─ç, an astronomer at the University of Washington and the HelioLinc3D projectÔÇÖs team leader.

The Rubin Observatory’s next-generation instruments are going to catalog not just asteroids but “all moving objects,” including comets, icy worlds beyond Neptune, and interstellar entities. This enhanced capability, coupled with HelioLinc3D, is expected to revolutionize our understanding of the solar system.

The hope is that by utilizing technologies like HelioLinc3D, we can discover and monitor numerous asteroids, ensuring the safety and protection of our planet from potential future impacts.

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