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This is the first warning system that will detect asteroids heading for Earth

An alert system operated by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA) can now scan the entire sky every 24 hours for objects on a collision course with Earth.

ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System), funded by NASA, has expanded its reach to the southern hemisphere, adding to two existing telescopes in the northern hemisphere at Haleakala and Maunaloa, Hawaii. Construction is now complete and operations are underway on two additional telescopes in South Africa and Chile.

“An asteroid hitting Earth can come at any time from any direction, so John Tonry, IfA professor and ATLAS principal investigator, said in a statement.

The new telescopes are located at the Sutherland Observing Station in South Africa and the El Sauce Observatory in Chile. These locations were selected not only for their access to the southern part of the sky, but also because of their time difference with Hawaii: they can observe at night when it is daytime in Hawaii.

The four-telescope ATLAS system is now the first hazardous asteroid survey capable of monitoring the entire dark sky every 24 hours. The modestly sized telescopes can image a patch of sky 100 times larger than the full moon in a single exposure.

Up to three weeks of margin for a 100-meter asteroid

The ATLAS system can provide a day’s warning for an asteroid 20 meters in diameter, capable of destroying a city level. Since larger asteroids can be detected further away, ATLAS, capable of causing great regional devastation. An asteroid that big could produce 10 times the destruction of the recent Hunga Tonga volcano eruption if it hit Earth.

UH developed the first two ATLAS telescopes in Hawaii with a 2013 grant from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program, now part of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The two facilities, at Haleakala and Maunaloa, became fully operational in 2017.

After several years of successful operation in Hawaii, IfA proposed additional funding from NASA to build two more telescopes in the southern hemisphere. IfA sought partners to host these telescopes and selected the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in South Africa and a multi-institutional collaboration in Chile. The presence of ATLAS increases the already substantial astronomical capacity in both countries.

Despite delays due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and supply chain complications, the assembly of the ATLAS telescopes was remotely supervised by the University of Hawaii team at ATLAS in coordination with international collaborators in South Africa. and Chile. In South Africa, the construction effort was led by the SAAO, and in Chile the team consisted of various partners, including the Millennium Institute for Astrophysics and Obstech, which operates the private El Sauce Observatory.

On January 22, ATLAS-Sutherland in South Africa discovered its first near-Earth object (NEO), 2022 BK, a 100-meter asteroid that currently poses no threat to Earth. To date, the ATLAS system has discovered more than 700 near-Earth asteroids and 66 comets, including detections of 2019 MO and observations of 2018 LA, two very small asteroids that collided with Earth. The system is specially designed to detect objects that come very close to Earth, closer than the distance to the Moon, 384,000 kilometers away.

The new ATLAS telescopes join existing ground-based surveys, as well as other next-generation ground-based NEO (near-Earth object) detection systems in the works.

According to Larry Denneau, IfA astronomer and ATLAS Co-Principal Investigator, “Fortunately, the hunt for NEO is a cooperative global effort, and the enhanced ATLAS complements existing ground-based NEO search programs, namely the NEO’s own Pan-STARRS.” University of Hawaii and the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson, Arizona. All of these systems have different specialties, and together they are working to keep us safe from dangerous asteroids that could strike anywhere from days to decades in the future.”

Source: Elcomercio

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