Innovation: Chicken Big

Spotting killer asteroids

January, 2007

“Every couple of million years, something hits the Earth that really causes devastation,” says Gerry Luppino, principle investigator for the University of Hawaii-led, international project to detect killer asteroids headed toward Earth.

Luppino cites the big one that struck Earth 65 million years ago as support for efforts to detect incoming objects. That was the one that killed nearly all life on the planet, not just the dinosaurs.

Here are the basics on the program known as Pan STARRS – the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System – which is watching our celestial back.

The Threat
In December 2004, scientists detected a 400-meter wide asteroid that was on a potential crash course into Earth in 2029. If it hit, a 1-in-50 chance at the time, the impact would be the equivalent of 100 nuclear bombs going off at once. Thank your lucky stars, the initial prediction was wrong. The asteroid is expected to miss us. But Luppino says there is a 1-in-700 chance that something like that will hit us in the next century.


The Offshoots
The Goal
In the early ’90s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration set out to map 90 percent of the asteroids over 1 kilometer or larger. About 50 percent have been identified so far. The next goal is to identify 90 percent of the 300-meter size asteroids, something Pan STARRS makes possible. After that, the goal will be asteroids 140 meters or bigger, but the technology to identify them has not yet been developed.

Luppino says even though the Pan STARRS telescopes are designed to find killer asteroids, the amount of data they will collect about the cosmos is unprecedented — data that could unlock new mysteries about such things as dark energy and the birth of the universe. To learn more, visit pan-starrs.ifa.hawaii.edu.

The Telescopes
The Pan STARRS telescope will be equipped with 1.4 billion pixels and the ability to photograph an area four times the size of the moon. It also can take up to 1,000 exposures in one night and survey the entire sky in a week. “No one has ever done this before,” says Luppino. There is currently one Pan STARRS telescope on Haleakala, which should be fully operational this month. Another even more powerful Pan STARRS telescope is planned for Mauna Kea later this decade. About $75 million is expected to be spent building both telescopes.

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Author:

Scott Radway