An asteroid near Earth, by the 2020s, won’t stand a chance. Multiple governments, universities and private entities worldwide are stepping up efforts to predict the next asteroid strike using extraordinary computing and the biggest, baddest cameras ever built.
The Rising Stars of Falling Rocks
Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS)
Located at Haleakala Observatories, 10,000 feet above Maui, Hawaii, the Pan-STARRS system is already rolling out photos of the sky with depth and clarity never before enjoyed by astronomers. In collaboration with the University of Hawaii, Pan-STARRS scientists are mapping small bodies in our own solar system that could one day threaten Earth, but also stars in other galaxies, bringing us light from long ago when the universe was young. Dark energy and dull, dying stars can’t even evade these monster cameras.
The Pan-STARRS system is currently running one telescope , a beast of a thing with a remarkable charge-coupling device (CCD), 1.4 gigapixel camera. Stars 10 millions times fainter than the naked human eye are being detected, meaning that a little hunk of rock in our own solar system will be spotted in no time. Eventually, four of these telescope will work in synch, quadrupling the system’s viewing power, and they will map the entire sky multiple times each month.
Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
The LSST is being constructed and tested in Cerro Pachon, Chile, and will open up the whole universe to everyone up to twice a week with it’s 6-color, 3 billion pixel CCD camera. Yes, I said everyone. The LSST plans to make all of their data available in an easily viewable, mind-blowing 3D map to anyone with a computer – an endlessly awesome prospect for students of any age as well as amateur enthusiasts. Data collected with that much detail that frequently will easily reveal minute movement (like that of an asteroid). LSST is funded both publicly (The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy) and privately (partnerships coordinated by The LSST Corporation). The LSST will be making Earth a safer place by the early 2020s.
The B612 Foundation
Started by Astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart in 2001, this private organization is dedicated to defending our planet from asteroids using a space-based scope. What makes this project, their Sentinel Mission, truly unique and exciting is that it will be the first commercial space flight to leave Earth orbit, allowing private citizens, organizations and companies to take charge of our outer space responsibilities. In fact, why don’t you donate right now.
The mission’s camera will orbit the sun at about the same distance as Venus. This will put it in a perfect spot to get the best possible images of our solar system. In a little over six years, it will create a database of tiny troublemakers down to 30 meters in diameter – smaller than ever categorized before, but certainly large enough to wreck havoc if they were to hit Earth.
Who Watches for Asteroids Now?
In 1998, congress charged NASA with the task of finding all asteroids in our solar system bigger than one kilometer, increasing that to everything bigger than 140 meters in 2006. In response, NASA’s Near Earth Object Program was born. It continues to operate out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, synching data collected from multiple sky spying partners.
Near Earth Objects Dynamic Site (NEODyS)
NASA works with the University of Pisa and the European Space Agency to maintain NEODyS. Much more than a web page, this data dump site contains a huge list of asteroids, some drawn out of queue and tagged as risky. Anyone can view this information, which is updated constantly as new data is contributed to the calculations.
Catalina Sky Survey (CSS)
The Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona scans about 800 degrees of sky in a night of observing, using the latest in tracking software to pick out NEOs (Near Earth Objects). Data is collected with a 4k x 4k charge-coupling device (CCD) camera fixed to the second largest Schmidt telescope in the country. CSS was a product of the Near Earth Object Program and is a collaboration between NASA, the University of Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon Observatory, and the Siding Spring Survey in Australia.
Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR)
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory LINEAR program also uses CCD detectors on telescopes (a pair of scopes, to be exact), but adds Air Force satellite-tracking technology and software to the asteroid hunting effort. This USAF and NASA collaboration operates out of White Sands Missile Range in Socorro, New Mexico.