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Spotlight shines on asteroid perils and prospects

DART spacecraft
Artwork shows NASA’s DART spacecraft approaching a binary asteroid. (NASA / JHUAPL Illustration)

Asteroid Day marks a catastrophic cosmic blast that flattened Siberian forests on June 30, 1908 — but the theme for this year’s observance is hope rather than dread.

“It’s a really exciting time for planetary defense,” former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, executive director of the B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute, told reporters today during the buildup to the anniversary. And the University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute has a starring role.

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Asteroid Institute launches its first research fellows

Asteroid tracks
The Asteroid Detection Analysis and Mapping software, or ADAM, can plot the courses of multiple asteroids, as shown in this visualization. (B612 Asteroid Institute via YouTube)

A Silicon Valley institute focusing on the perils and prospects posed by near-Earth objects has chosen its first senior research fellows to work at the University of Washington.

Bryce Bolin and Sarah Greenstreet will work under the direction of the Asteroid Institute’s executive director, Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut and co-founder of the B612 Foundation.

“The team is growing,” Lu told GeekWire.

Like B612, the Asteroid Institute focuses on the issue of tracking and potentially deflecting asteroids that have a chance of hitting Earth. The institute puts its emphasis on research tools and technologies that can aid in planetary defense.

Lu said Bolin and Greenstreet will help with projects such as B612’s Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping project. ADAM has been compared to a Google Maps for solar system objects — which is an apt comparison, considering that Lu worked on Google Maps for a time after leaving NASA in 2007.

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Tech companies join asteroid-tracking campaign

Asteroid tracks
The Asteroid Detection Analysis and Mapping software, or ADAM, can plot the courses of multiple asteroids and other celestial bodies, as shown in this visualization. (B612 Asteroid Institute via YouTube)

Google Cloud and AGI (a.k.a. Analytical Graphics Inc.) have gotten on board with the B612 Asteroid Institute to develop a cloud-based platform for keeping track of asteroid discoveries.

The two companies have become technology partners for the Asteroid Decision Analysis and Mapping project, or ADAM, which aims to provide the software infrastructure for analyzing the trajectories of near-Earth objects, identifying potential threats, and sizing up the scenarios for taking action if necessary.

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Asteroid Institute gears up to protect Earth

Gravity tractor
How do you divert a potentially threatening asteroid? One of the suggested scenarios is to station a “gravity tractor” near the asteroid so that the gravitational interaction gradually shifts the threatening object to a non-threatening trajectory. (FIAAA / B612 Foundation Illustration / Dan Durda)

The B612 Foundation is setting up an Asteroid Institute to study techniques for detecting and diverting near-Earth objects that may threaten our planet – and giving the University of Washington a leading role.

The B612 Asteroid Institute’s first two postdoctoral research fellows will be posted to UW’s DIRAC Institute, where they’ll help develop analytical tools to track asteroids and assess how much of an impact risk they pose.

That task meshes with the 15-year-old B612 Foundation’s mission of calling attention to the asteroid threat and the technologies that will be needed to spare us from the fate that the dinosaurs faced 65 million years ago.

“In a sense, the Asteroid Institute reflects what we’ve always been doing,” B612 President Danica Remy told GeekWire during a visit to Seattle.

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To nuke or not: Asteroid plans take shape

Image: Asteroid entering atmosphere
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid entering Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)

What should the world do about the potential threat of a catastrophic asteroid collision? This month NASA established the Planetary Defense Coordination Office to manage the issue. Meanwhile, the Russians and the Europeans are talking aboutdiverting nasty space rocks with nuclear weapons.

All this comes as cosmic threats are getting ready to hit prime time, in the form of an NBC comedy titled “You, Me and the Apocalypse.” (The threat in this case is a comet, not an asteroid.)

Former astronaut Ed Lu, CEO of the B612 Foundation, is glad for all the attention. For years, B612 has been trying to raise awareness about the asteroid threat, with mixed success. In a statement posted on Facebook today, Lu noted that NASA’s actions come in response to a highly critical internal report about NASA’s asteroid-hunting effort.

Another indication of a turning tide is contained in last month’s omnibus spending bill, which sets aside $50 million for the effort during fiscal year 2016. That’s 10 times more than NASA was spending in 2010.

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