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NASA Funds Asteroid Alert System

February 18, 2013

By Paul Thomson :: 7:19 AM

ATLAS asteroid detecting telescope systemAfter two meteorite incidents late last week, in Russia and San Francisco, this announcement seems to come at a perfect time. NASA has indicated that it will help back a University of Hawaii project to identify dangerous asteroids before they plunge to Earth.

Called ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) the system will allow researchers to operate up to 8 small telescopes, each outfitted with cameras of up to 100 megapixels, on two locations in the Hawaiian Islands. The University’s team is on track to build and run an asteroid detection system that will patrol the visible sky twice each night looking for faint objects moving through space.

The University expects that the system will be fully operational by the end of 2015.

Astronomer and faculty member John Tonry compared ATLAS’s sensitivity to be similar to detecting a match flame in New York City when viewed from San Francisco.

The team believes that the system will be able to offer a one-week warning for a 50-yard diameter asteroid, and a three week warning for a 150 yard-diameter asteroid.

“That’s enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure, and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts,” explained Tonry.

Many asteroids reside in the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, though some, called near-Earth objects, can orbit much closer to Earth.

ATLAS will complement another system searching for asteroids, the Pan-STARRS project, a system that searches for large “killer asteroids” years, decades, and even centuries before a potential impact with Earth. Pan-STARRS takes one full month to complete one sweep of the sky in a deep but narrow survey, compared to ATLAS which will search the sky in a closer and wider path to help identify smaller asteroids that could hit Earth much more frequently.

Funding from the Near Earth Observation Program at NASA will provide $5 million over five years with $3.5 million designated for design and construction during the first three years and the remainder for operating the system in the following two years.

[More info: ATLAS | Image above: conceptual rendering of ATLAS telescope]