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NASA’s state-of-the-art asteroid tracking system is now capable of full-sky search

the " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">Nasa-funded Asteroid Earth Impact Last Warning System (ATLAS) – a state-of-the-art asteroid detection system operated by the University of Hawaii (UH) Institute of Astronomy (IfA) for the agency Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO)– reached a new milestone by becoming the first survey capable of searching the entire dark sky every 24 hours for near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could present a future danger of impact on Earth. Now consisting of four telescopes, ATLAS has extended its reach to the Southern Hemisphere from the two existing Northern Hemisphere telescopes on Haleakala and Maunaloa in Hawai’i to include two additional observatories in South Africa and Chile.

NASA Asteroid Tracking System

From left to right: Sutherland ATLAS station under construction in South Africa. Credit: Willie Koorts (SAAO); Chilean engineers and astronomers installing the ATLAS telescope at the El Sauce observatory. Credit: University of Hawaii; Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube before impact with the binary system Didymos. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben; Illustration of the NEO Surveyor spacecraft

“An important part of planetary defense is finding asteroids before they find us, so if necessary we can get them before they get us,” said Kelly Fast, Earth Observing Program Manager. Near-Earth Objects for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. “With the addition of these two telescopes, ATLAS is now able to search the entire dark sky every 24 hours, making it an important addition to NASA’s ongoing efforts to find, track and monitor near-Earth objects. .”

UH IfA developed the first two ATLAS telescopes in Hawaii under a 2013 grant from NASA Near-Earth Object Observation Program, which is now part of NASA’s PDCO, and the two facilities at Haleakala and Maunaloa, respectively, became fully operational in 2017. After several years of successful operation in Hawai’i, the IfA competed for funding from NASA to build two more telescopes in the southern hemisphere. The 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 significant astronomical capabilities in both countries.

Each of the four ATLAS telescopes can image a strip of sky 100 times larger than the full moon in a single exposure. The completion of the last two telescopes, located at Sutherland Observation Station in South Africa and El Sauce Observatory in Chile, allows ATLAS to observe the night sky when it is daytime in Hawaii’ i.

To date, the ATLAS system has discovered more than 700 near-Earth asteroids and 66 comets, as well as the detection of 2019 MB and THE 2018, two very small asteroids that actually crashed into Earth. The system is specifically designed to detect objects that come very close to Earth – closer than the distance to the Moon, at around 240,000 miles or 384,000 kilometers. On January 22, ATLAS-Sutherland in South Africa discovered its first NEO, 2022 BK, a 100-meter asteroid that poses no threat to Earth.

The addition of the new observatories to the ATLAS system comes at a time when the agency’s planetary defense efforts are on the rise. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the world’s first large-scale mission to test a technology to defend Earth against possible asteroid impacts, was launched on November 24, 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. DART will deflect a known asteroid, which is not a threat to Earth, to slightly alter the asteroid’s motion in a way that can be accurately measured using ground-based telescopes.

Additionally, work on the agency’s Near-Earth Object Surveyor (NEO Surveyor) space telescope is underway after receiving clearance to proceed to preliminary design, known as Key Decision Point-B. Once complete, the infrared space telescope will accelerate the agency’s ability to discover and characterize most potentially dangerous near-Earth objects, including those that could approach Earth from the daytime sky.

“We have yet to find a significant asteroid impact threat to Earth, but we continue to search for this large population that we know has yet to be found. Our goal is to find any possible impact for years to decades in advance so that it can be deflected with a capability using technology that we already have, like DART,” said Lindley Johnson, Planetary Defense Officer at NASA Headquarters. “DART, NEO Surveyor and ATLAS are all important parts of NASA’s work to prepare Earth in case we face an asteroid impact threat.”

The University of Hawaii’s ATLAS is supported by a grant from the Near-Earth Object Observing Program administered by NASA’s PDCO. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab manages the DART mission for NASA’s PDCO as a project of the agency’s Planetary Missions Program Office (PMPO). NEO Surveyor is developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the University of Arizona and managed by NASA’s PMPO with program oversight by PDCO. NASA established PDCO in 2016 to manage the agency’s ongoing planetary defense efforts.