Asteroid-hunting algorithm passes a tricky test

A new technique for finding potentially hazardous asteroids before they find us has chalked up its first success.

In this case, the asteroid isn’t expected to threaten Earth anytime in the foreseeable future. But the fact that the technique — which uses a new computer algorithm called HelioLinc3D — actually works comes as a confidence boost as astronomers get set to step up the asteroid hunt with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile.

The University of Washington’s DiRAC Institute will play a leading role in analyzing the data from the Rubin Observatory, and HelioLinc3D is meant to make the job easier.

It’ll be another couple of years before the Rubin Observatory starts surveying the skies, but researchers put HelioLinc3D to the test by feeding it data from the NASA-funded Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, or ATLAS.

During the July 18 test run, the algorithm combined fragments of ATLAS data from four nights of observations to identify an asteroid that had been previously missed.

The asteroid, designated 2022 SF289 and described in a Minor Planet Electronic Circular, is thought to be about 600 feet wide. That’s wide enough to cause widespread destruction on Earth in the event of an impact. The good news is that projections of 2022 SF289’s orbital path show it staying 140,000 miles away from Earth at its closest. Nevertheless, the space rock fits NASA’s definition of a potentially hazardous asteroid because of its estimated size and the fact that it can come within 5 million miles of our planet.

UW researcher Ari Heinze, the principal developer of HelioLinc3D, said the algorithm’s success should carry over to the Rubin Observatory’s future database.

“By demonstrating the real-world effectiveness of the software that Rubin will use to look for thousands of yet-unknown potentially hazardous asteroids, the discovery of 2022 SF289 makes us all safer,” Heinze said in a news release.


How using the cloud can rev up the search for asteroids

Astronomers have used a cloud-based technique pioneered at the University of Washington to identify and track asteroids in bunches of a hundred or more. Their achievement could dramatically accelerate the quest to find potentially threatening space rocks.

The technique makes use of an open-source analysis platform known as Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping, or ADAM; plus a recently developed algorithm called Tracklet-less Heliocentric Orbit Recovery, or THOR. The THOR algorithm was created by Joachim Moeyens, an Asteroid Institute Fellow at UW; and Mario Juric, director of UW’s DiRAC Institute.

Teaming up ADAM and THOR may sound like a cross between a Bible story and a Marvel comic, but this dynamic duo’s superpower is strictly scientific: When ADAM runs the THOR algorithm, the software can determine the orbits of asteroids, even previously unidentified asteroids, by sifting through any large database of astronomical observations.

ADAM has been a long-term project for the Asteroid Institute, a program of the California-based B612 Foundation.

“Discovering and tracking asteroids is crucial to understanding our solar system, enabling development of space, and protecting our planet from asteroid impacts,” former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the Asteroid Institute’s executive director, said today in a news release. “With THOR running on ADAM, any telescope with an archive can now become an asteroid search telescope.”


Asteroid Day serves as a teachable moment

Today’s 112th anniversary of a close brush with a cosmic catastrophe serves as a teachable moment about the perils and prospects posed by near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroid Day is timed to commemorate a blast from space that occurred over a Siberian forest back on June 30, 1908. The explosion, thought to have been caused by the breakup of an asteroid or comet, wiped out millions of acres of trees — but because the area was so remote, the death toll was minimal.

Because of the Tunguska blast and more recent close calls, such as the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor blast, the threat from above is being taken more seriously. And although a Seattle-area asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources fizzled, experts say the idea of extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids is worth taking seriously as well.

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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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ZTF team shares sky scanner’s greatest hits

Andromeda galaxy
This composite image of the Andromeda galaxy was made by combining images from the Zwicky Transient Facility in three bands of visible light. The image covers 2.9 square degrees, which is one-sixteenth of ZTF’s full field of view. (ZTF Photo / D. Goldstein / R. Hurt / Caltech)

A state-of-the-art astronomical camera system in California known as the Zwicky Transient Facility is rolling out an early batch of greatest hits with an assist from the University of Washington.

The wide-angle camera makes use of the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at Southern California’s Palomar Observatory, with Caltech playing the principal role in the $24 million project. But UW is one of the partners in the ZTF consortium, and UW’s DIRAC Institute plays a key role in the automated alert system that lets astronomers know when the instrument has picked up a hot one.

Technical details and early results from the ZTF are laid out in a flurry of six papers accepted by the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The discoveries include more than 1,100 supernovae and 50 near-Earth asteroids. One of the finds is a strange space rock known as 2019 AQ3. It makes an orbit around the sun every 165 days, which gives it the shortest “year” of any known asteroid.

“It’s a cornucopia of results,” Caltech astronomer Shri Kulkarni, the ZTF project’s principal investigator, said in a news release. “We are up and running and delivering data to the astronomical community. Astronomers are energized.”

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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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Number crunchers are on the trail of dark energy

Saul Perlmutter
Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter discusses the implications of the universe’s accelerating expansion at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Big data just might give astronomers a better grip on the answer to one of the biggest questions in physics: Exactly what’s behind the mysterious acceleration in the expansion rate of the universe, also known as dark energy?

And that means the number crunchers at the University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute have their work cut out for them.

The role of data analysis in resolving the mystery came to the fore on May 14 during a talk given at the DIRAC Institute’s first-ever open house on the UW campus. The speaker was none other than Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, who won a share of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011 for finding the first evidence of dark energy.

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