A new software can hunt 'potentially hazardous' asteroids hiding in plain sight

It has already spotted 104 new ones.
Ameya Paleja

A new computational tool developed by the Asteroid Institute, a non-governmental space organization, uses old data captured by telescopes to spot asteroids that astronomers might have missed, The New York Times reported

Asteroids that can potentially crash onto Earth and wipe off human civilization are the greatest fear space enthusiasts have. For all the technological advancements we have made so far, our understanding of our solar system is severely limited. Giant asteroids have been zipping past the Earth at thousands of miles an hour every now and then. It would not be a surprise if one were headed straight for us. 

The B612 Foundation was founded in 2002 out of the frustrations of some space enthusiasts, thinking that governments were not doing enough to scan the skies for such asteroids. The private not-for-profit organization was also collecting funds to build, launch and operate its own space telescope. After NASA agreed to launch asteroid spotting telescopes of its own, the foundation pivoted to solving other problem areas of asteroid spotting. 

Seen but not noticed

Astronomers are constantly looking at the skies to spot other stars, planets, and even galaxies. In their data collection phase, researchers capture the vastness of the night skies and images of other celestial bodies that often go unused. Hidden among these images are asteroids that have been seen but not noticed. 

The Asteroid Institute wanted to tap into this massive repository of data and teamed up with researchers at the University of Washington to develop an algorithm that could spot potential asteroids in this vast span of data.

A tracklet is a series of observations of a single moving object made on a single night. Astronomers use tracklets to predict the location of the object in the future or in the past. However, the datasets available to researchers did not have tracklets, so the software needed to use the single point of light as their starting point and create their orbits around it. Therefore, the software is named Tracketless Heliocentric Orbit Recovery or THOR.

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Using laws of gravity and making assumptions about its direction and velocity, THOR creates test orbits for the asteroid and tries to spot it again in other images of the sky. When the software finds five-six such observations separated by a few weeks, it flags the candidate as an asteroid discovery. 

Aided by cloud computing 

When beginning with a single point of light, there are infinite possibilities for the orbit. However, since asteroids follow certain orbits, the possibilities narrow down to a few thousand. The task of crunching out their test orbits is still a massive data-crunching exercise, and Google stepped in with its cloud-based computing and storage resources to make it possible.

So far, THOR has only been used to analyze one-eighth of the data archived from September 2013, and computed over 1,300 potential asteroids. These were then compared to the asteroid catalog of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. While some asteroids had been spotted before, the Minor Planet Center confirmed 104 objects as new discoveries, The New York Times reported. 

"Discovering and tracking asteroids is crucial to understanding our solar system, enabling the development of space, and protecting our planet from asteroid impacts," said Dr. Ed Lu, Executive Director of Asteroid Institute, in a press release. "With THOR, any telescope with an archive can now become an asteroid search telescope." 

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