Killer Asteroids Are Hiding in Plain Sight. A New Tool Helps Spot Them.

Ed Lu wants to save the Earth from killer asteroids.

Or at least, if there is a big space rock in our path, Dr. Lu, a former NASA astronaut with a doctorate in applied physics, wants to find it before it hits us – hopefully with years of advance warning and a chance for humanity to overcome it.

On Tuesday, the B612 Foundation, a non-profit group led by Dr. Lou helped discover, announced the discovery of more than 100 asteroids. (The name of the foundation is a nod to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s children’s book, “The Little Prince”; B612 is the protagonist’s domestic asteroid.)

It is incredible in itself. New asteroids are always being reported by skywatchers around the world. It includes amateurs with backyard telescopes and robotic surveys that systematically scan the night sky.

Significantly, the B612 did not build a new telescope or make new observations with existing telescopes. Instead, researchers funded by B612 used cutting-edge computational power on age-old images – 412,000 of them in the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory or in the digital archives at NOIRLab – for the extraction of cosmic light out of cosmic light. Captured in pics.

“It’s a modern way of doing astronomy, Dr. Lou said.

This research adds to the “planet protection” efforts undertaken by NASA and other organizations around the world.

Today, of the estimated 25,000 asteroids near Earth, at least 460 feet in diameter, only 40 percent have been found. Another 60 percent – about 15,000 space rocks, each with the potential to release hundreds of millions of tons of TNT equivalent energy in a collision with Earth – has not been discovered.

B612 collaborated with Joachim Moynes, a graduate student at the University of Washington, and his doctoral advisor Mario Zurich, professor of astronomy. He and colleagues at the university’s Institute for Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology have developed an algorithm capable of testing astronomical imagery not only to identify points of light that could be taken on asteroids, but also to detect images that What are the points of light in it? Different nights are actually the same asteroid.

In essence, researchers have developed a way of finding out what has already been seen but not noticed.

Typically, asteroids are discovered when a single part of the sky is photographed several times during the night. There are many points of light in the night sky. Distant stars and galaxies live in the same system. But objects that are very close inside the solar system move very fast and their position changes during the night.

Astronomers call a series of observations of a single moving object during a night “tracklet”. The tracklet indicates the motion of the object, indicating to astronomers where they might find it the next night. They can also find older images for the same object.

Many astronomical observations that are not part of systematic asteroid discovery essentially record asteroids, but only at the same time and place, not the multiple observations required to put the tracklets together.

NOIRLab Images For example, Victor M. in Chile as part of a survey of about one-eighth of the night sky to map the distribution of galaxies in the universe. Blanco was taken by a 4-meter telescope.

The extra specks of light were ignored, as they were not what the astronomers were studying. “They’re just random data in random images of the sky,” Dr. Lou said.

But for Mr. Moynes and Drs. Zurich, a point of illumination that is not a star or galaxy, is the starting point of his algorithm, which he named Tracklet-less Heliocentric Orbit Recovery, or THOR.

The motion of an asteroid is precisely determined by the law of gravity. THOR creates a test orbit that corresponds to the observed point of light by assuming a certain distance and velocity. It then calculates where the asteroid will be next and last night. If there appears to be a point of light in the data, it could be the same asteroid. If the algorithm can combine five or six observations together in a few weeks, it is a promising candidate for asteroid discovery.

Theoretically, the potential test to investigate is a myriad of orbits, but it would take an impractical infinity to calculate. In practice, since the asteroid is clustered around a certain orbit, the algorithm only needs to consider a few thousand carefully selected possibilities.

However, calculating thousands of test orbits for thousands of potential asteroids is a huge number-crunching task. But the advent of cloud computing – huge computational power and data storage distributed across the Internet – makes it possible. Google spent time trying on its Google Cloud platform.

“It’s one of the coolest apps I’ve ever seen,” said Scott Penburthy, director of applied artificial intelligence at Google.

So far, scientists have used about one-eighth of the September 2013 data from the NOIRLab archives. THOR churned out 1,354 possible asteroids. Many of them were already on the list of asteroids maintained by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. Some of them had been observed earlier, but only during one night and the tracklet was not sufficient to confidently determine the orbit.

The Minor Planet Center has so far confirmed 104 items as new discoveries. The NOIRLab archive contains seven years of data, indicating that thousands are waiting to find asteroids.

“I think it’s wonderful,Matthew Payne, director of the Minor Planet Center, said those who were not involved in developing THOR. “I think it’s very interesting and it also allows us to make good use of the archival data that already exists.,

The algorithm is currently only configured to detect major belt asteroids, which have an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, and not asteroids close to Earth, which could collide with our planet. Asteroids closer to Earth are more difficult to identify because they move faster. Different observations of the same asteroid can be further varied in time and distance, and the algorithm needs more crunching to make connections.

“It will definitely work,” Mr. Moynes said. “There is no reason why he cannot do it. I didn’t really get a chance to try it.

THOR not only has the ability to detect new asteroids in old data, but it can also change future observations. For example, Vera c. The Rubin Observatory Law, formerly known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, is currently under construction in Chile.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Rubin Observatory is an 8.4-meter telescope that will periodically scan the night sky to track what changes occur periodically.

Part of the observatory’s mission is to study the massive structure of the universe and to locate distant exploding stars, also known as supernovae. Closer to home, he would also see clusters of planets smaller than the hazy planets around the solar system.

A few years ago, some scientists suggested that the observation pattern of the Rubin telescope could be adjusted so that it could identify more asteroid tracklets and thus more quickly detect more dangerous, yet-unexplored asteroids. But that change will slow down other astronomical discoveries.

If the THOR algorithm works well with Rubin data, the telescope will not need to scan the same part of the sky twice at night, instead it can cover twice the area.

“It could be theoretically radical, or at least very important,” said Zeljko Evzic, director of the telescope and author of the scientific paper that described THOR and tested it against observations.

If the telescope could return to the same spot in the sky every two nights instead of every four, it could benefit other discoveries, including the discovery of supernovas.

“That would be another effect of the algorithm that has nothing to do with asteroids,” said Dr. Said Evzic. “This nicely shows how the landscape is changing. The ecosystem of science is changing because software can now do things that 20, 30 years ago you wouldn’t even dream about, you wouldn’t even think about.”,

For Dr. Lu, THOR offers a different way to achieve the same goals that he had a decade ago.

At the time, the B612 had its eye on an ambitious and more expensive project. The non-profit organization Sentinel was going to build, launch and operate its own space telescope.

At that time Dr. Lu and the other B612 leaders were frustrated by the slow pace of exploration of dangerous space rocks. In 2005, Congress passed a mandate to NASA to find and track 90 percent of asteroids approximately 460 feet or more in diameter by 2020. But legislators never provided NASA with the money it needed to complete the task, and the deadline passed less than that. Half of them have been found asteroids.

It was difficult for the B612 to raise $ 450 million from private donors to underwrite Sentinel, especially as NASA was considering an asteroid-detecting space telescope of its own.

When the National Science Foundation approved the construction of the Rubin Observatory, B612 re-evaluated its plans. “We can quickly pick up and say, ‘What is a different approach to solving the problem that exists for us?'” Lou said.

The Rubin Observatory will observe its first test in about a year and will be operational in about two years. Ten years of Rubin observations, along with other asteroid discoveries, could eventually meet Congress’ 90 percent target, Drs. Said Evzic.

NASA is also stepping up its planet defense efforts. Its asteroid telescope, named NEO Surveyor, is in the initial design phase, with a goal to launch in 2026.

And later this year, its double asteroid redirection test mission will slam a projectile into smaller asteroids and measure how much it changes the path of the asteroid. China’s National Space Agency is working on a similar mission.

For the B612, instead of squabbling over a nearly half-billion-dollar telescope project, it could contribute to less expensive research efforts like THOR. Last week, it announced it had received a 1.3 million gift for further work on cloud-based computational tools for asteroid science. The foundation also received a grant from Tito’s hand-made vodka that would match up to દા 1 million from other donors.

B612 and Drs. Lu is no longer just trying to save the world. “We are the answer to the trivial question of how vodka relates to asteroids.” He said.

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