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.