Life is a fragile balance between near misses and prevention. In just 1 hour an asteroid will pass 200,000 miles away from our earthly domiciles. Whew, that was a close one…
Predicting space collisions is the full time job of NASA and scientists worldwide. Today’s rock, YU55, was detected by the Deep Space Network in the Mojave Desert and Arceibo Radar Facility in Puerto Rico. We have come a long way since the last time, in 1976, when we had a near miss.
Robots are incredible recorders of data and the perfect mechanism to keep watch of our friendly skies. At the National Science Center, they have created a “robotic observatory system”, called RAPTOR. This robot is essentially the Los Alamos version of a Hollywood director capturing tons of astrophysical movies to help astronomers better understand “planetary systems, stars, galaxies, and the universe.”
One of RAPTOR’s specialties is detecting “killer asteroids”, like the ones that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Using its “stereovision” it can monitor space activity in parallax measurements to automatically warn us of asteroids as far away as the moon. According to the NSC website, “measuring an asteroid’s parallax has an advantage over the current detection method, which looks for the streak an asteroid leaves in a time exposure of the night sky. An asteroid that leaves a streak has a component of motion perpendicular to a straight line drawn from Earth to the asteroid. But the asteroids of most concern are headed straight for Earth and thus leave no streaks. Fortunately, a parallax measurement can easily detect such objects.”
This technology enables astronomers, like the ones that saw YU55, to better calculate potential direct hits that are within 100,000 kilometers of Earth. The downside is that a killer asteroid which is as far away as the moon, only gives us eight hour pack up and find a new planet. In such an event, we need to hope there is more room on the space station, or invest in better lenses for RAPTOR’s eyes.