Algorithm swiftly spots its first potentially hazardous asteroid during test

Designated as 2022 SF289, this approximately 600-foot-long space rock had previously been missed due to its faint appearance.
Sade Agard
Planet Earth and an asteroid
Planet Earth and an asteroid


In a significant milestone, an asteroid discovery algorithm called HelioLinc3D has identified its first "potentially hazardous" asteroid, according to a recent press release by the University of Washington

Designated as 2022 SF289, this approximately 600-foot-long space rock was spotted during a test run of the algorithm with the ATLAS survey in Hawaii.

Spotting Potentially hazardous asteroids

A "potentially hazardous asteroid" (PHA) is a term used for space rocks that come close to Earth and are closely monitored by scientists to ensure they won't collide with our planet, a potentially catastrophic event. 

The discovery of 2022 SF289, while posing no imminent risk to Earth, confirms the efficiency of the new algorithm, which requires fewer and more dispersed observations compared to current methods.

"By demonstrating the real-world effectiveness of the software that [the] Rubin [Observatory] will use to look for thousands of yet-unknown potentially hazardous asteroids, the discovery of 2022 SF289 makes us all safer," said Ari Heinze, the principal developer of HelioLinc3D, in a statement.

The solar system is home to tens of millions of rocky bodies, ranging from small asteroids to dwarf planets. Most of these celestial objects remain distant, but some, known as near-Earth objects (NEOs), have trajectories that bring them within about 5 million miles of Earth's orbit. 

PHAs are the closest NEOs and warrant special attention due to their proximity.

To discover PHAs, scientists employ specialized telescope systems like the NASA-funded ATLAS survey, which takes images of the sky at least four times every night. 

Scientists make a discovery when they observe a point of light moving unambiguously in a straight line over the image series. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, set to join the hunt for PHAs in 2025, is expected to increase the discovery rate dramatically. 

Equipped with an 8.4-meter mirror and a massive 3,200-megapixel camera, Rubin will quickly scan the sky, visiting spots twice per night. It will observe previously elusive objects.

During a test using ATLAS data, the algorithm successfully detected 2022 SF289, which astronomers had previously missed due to its faint appearance. Additional observations from Pan-STARRS and Catalina Sky Survey later confirmed the discovery.

Mario Jurić, director of the DiRAC Institute and a leader of the team behind HelioLinc3D, emphasized, "This is just a small taste of what to expect with the Rubin Observatory in less than two years when HelioLinc3D will be discovering an object like this every night."

The success of the HelioLinc3D algorithm highlights the critical role of advancements in algorithms and data-intensive astronomy in the coming decade.