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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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Telescope project honors astronomer and billionaire

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Artwork shows the Vera Rubin Observatory’s Simonyi Survey Telescope scanning the sky. (LSST Illustration)

The next great ground-based astronomical observatory, previously known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, has been named after the late astronomer Vera Rubin — with a nod to Seattle software billionaire Charles Simonyi as well.

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DIRAC Institute plans big-data astronomy

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Artwork shows the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope scanning the night sky in Chile. (LSST Illustration)

A new data analysis center for what’s expected to be torrents of astronomical imagery is taking shape at the University of Washington.

Thanks to contributions from software billionaire Charles Simonyi and other donors, researchers at the Astronomy Department’s DIRAC Institute are getting ready to crunch data from two wide-angle telescope surveys.

The first survey is the Palomar Observatory’s Zwicky Transient Facility, which is due to begin operations in August and will scan the entire accessible sky every night for supernovae and other cosmic outbursts.

The DIRAC Institute will also manage the development of analytical tools for the almost real-time processing of images from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a massive observatory that’s scheduled to start scanning the skies over Chile in 2019.

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