A new algorithm has detected a potentially dangerous asteroid

As humanity continues its search for asteroids, near-Earth objects known as near-Earth objects (NEOs) are becoming of particular interest due to the potential economic opportunities of asteroid mining. However, there is also the potential danger of these objects colliding with Earth. Those that fall into this category are called potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), and researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new algorithm to detect them.

Of the 30,000 NEOs detected so far, about 2,300 fall into the PHA category. However, the researchers believe that at least 2,300 more NEOs remain to be detected. PHAs typically fly within 5 million miles of Earth and must be large enough to pose a potential threat, rather than simply burn up in our atmosphere as a shooting star.

Finding these dim objects, even when they are at the closest distance, can be a challenge. Typically, scientists use specialized telescopes such as the Asteroid Terrestrial Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) at the University of Hawaii. However, these massive telescopes usually have to image the same section of sky four times a night to see a PHA at the edge of the detection zone.

That’s where a new algorithm comes to the rescue. Developed by Ari Heinze, a researcher at the University of Southern California, and Siegfried Eggl, now a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the algorithm, dubbed HelioLinc3D, is able to find asteroid data that can be spread out between observations over several days from a single satellite.

The algorithm was able to find the first new PHA, which is now known as 2022 SF289. ATLAS originally discovered it during observations on September 19, 2022, but it was only detected once that night. Fortunately, ATLAS detected it three more times on two different nights, and HelioLinc3D was able to put the puzzle together to find the asteroid hiding in plain sight.

2022 SF289 is not a threat, but at 600 feet (about 180 m) long, it is likely to be destructive but not catastrophic like the asteroid that caused the demise of the dinosaurs. Other observatories were also unable to detect it because it was in a region of the Milky Way where there are many background stars, making it difficult to see the faint, fast-moving rock, even though it is much closer to us. However, once detected, it was quickly confirmed by other asteroid finders such as the Catalina Sky Survey and Pan-STARRS.

The new algorithm is expected to run on a much more powerful telescope, the Vera C. Observatory. Rubin, which is scheduled to be operational in Chile in early 2025. It is expected to require only two captures per night to detect asteroids like 2022 SF289, rather than four as it does now. And HelioLinc3D will help it do just that.

Until then, the algorithm has a lot of work to do to find asteroids in the catalogs of ATLAS and other asteroid hunters. Let’s wish it good luck.

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