Planet killer: Ex-army officer's Welsh space-rock mission

Tunguska, Chelyabinsk... Powys

Big bang theories

Some NEOs would have even more, er, impact. A 1km-wide rock would kill a fifth of the Earth’s population and set civilisation back to the Middle Ages, at least until surviving Register readers were able to rebuild the internet. A collision between Earth and an object 5km wide would cause massive climate change as well as a very big hole, sending us and much of the rest of life on Earth the way of the dinosaurs – this is probably what wiped them out. Summing up the full range of Earth-bound objects, from harmless shooting stars to the end of life, Tate tells us: “We’ve got a pretty big toy-box to play with.”

First, Tate provides the good news: the last 20 years have seen around 95 per cent of NEOs more than a kilometre in size spotted and tracked. Their orbits have been calculated, and none are coming this way for at least a century. And it gets better – if and when we spot one that is, there are plenty of ways to move them out of our way.

Spaceguard Center and Project Drax, photo SA Mathieson

The Spaceguard Centre, with expansion for Project Drax

The nuclear option taken by Bruce Willis in the 1998 film Armageddon is not recommended by Tate: blowing up one large, predictable object would produce thousands of unpredictable smaller ones. Far better to nudge the NEO than nuke it, he tells us, as red kites and buzzards wheel outside. We might use ablation – heating up part of the object, causing it to vent vapour so it propelled itself like a rocket motor – or park a large spacecraft near the object, exerting enough gravity to shift it away from a collision course.

For a comet that rarely comes close to the Sun, we might only have a couple of years to change its orbit – but most NEOs are asteroids, where humanity should have decades to get organised. “The bottom line is, there is nothing here we can’t do,” Tate says, adding that the dinosaurs simply lacked a space programme. The bad news is that we aren’t putting in the ground work – at least, not enough of it. While astronomers have tabs on most of the biggest NEOs, work has barely started on those that could take out a city. An asteroid of 150 metres would reach the ground at as much as 50,000 mph – triple that if it were a comet – continue into the crust then explode, causing a round crater 3km wide.

At the end of 2014, NASA’s Near Earth Object Programme had 11,949 asteroid NEOs on its database, with just 861 of them larger than a kilometre across. Of those between 140m and 1km, Tate says we probably know of just five per cent to 10 per cent of the total. At the current rate of discovery it could take more than century to spot and track the rest. But things are looking up. The US is already involved, through Nasa’s Ames Research Centre and the US Air Force Space Command, with the NEO issue being championed in Washington by US congressman Dana Rohrabacher. The European Space Agency is also increasingly contributing to the field.

So how about Her Majesty’s Government? “Doing nothing. Not a terribly bright idea, current British government policy,” Tate tells us.

13 inch telescope Spaceguard Center, photo: Spaceguard Center

Inside Spaceguard's observatory

In 2000, the UK government commissioned a comprehensive report on NEOs and decided to give the National Space Centre in Leicester £300,000 to build an exhibition and website, designating it as the National Near Earth Objects Information Centre. The Spaceguard Centre recently took over the national information centre job, but is also part of the global effort to track NEOs. Spaceguard itself is a classic product of British inspiration and inertia. Tate in 1996 proposed that the Ministry of Defence establish a centre to study the threat posed to the UK by the impact of an asteroid of comet.

He claimed support from Arthur C Clarke and scientists including Gene Schoemaker – who helped discover comet Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 that broke up and collided with Jupiter in 1994 – and Professor Edward Teller, who was an early member of the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb in the US.

The MoD passed on his proposal, but not the Department of Trade and Industry, which funded further study and established a task force to assess the threat. That study led to nothing much happening, so Tate set up the Spaceguard Centre, opened in 2001 by Sir Patrick Moore. It was equipped with private money, although it received a £1,400 award from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) in 2002.

Spaceguard is today home to two large robotically controlled telescopes, used by Tate to confirm other people’s NEOs spottings. Moving us across to his control centre, he demonstrates the process: a progression through three time-separated images of the same patch of the night sky where a NEO is expected, which makes it easy to spot what’s moving. Software automatically prepares reports for the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planets Center, helping to calculate orbits.

Other stories you might like

  • How ICE became a $2.8b domestic surveillance agency
    Your US tax dollars at work

    The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has spent about $2.8 billion over the past 14 years on a massive surveillance "dragnet" that uses big data and facial-recognition technology to secretly spy on most Americans, according to a report from Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology.

    The research took two years and included "hundreds" of Freedom of Information Act requests, along with reviews of ICE's contracting and procurement records. It details how ICE surveillance spending jumped from about $71 million annually in 2008 to about $388 million per year as of 2021. The network it has purchased with this $2.8 billion means that "ICE now operates as a domestic surveillance agency" and its methods cross "legal and ethical lines," the report concludes.

    ICE did not respond to The Register's request for comment.

    Continue reading
  • Fully automated AI networks less than 5 years away, reckons Juniper CEO
    You robot kids, get off my LAN

    AI will completely automate the network within five years, Juniper CEO Rami Rahim boasted during the company’s Global Summit this week.

    “I truly believe that just as there is this need today for a self-driving automobile, the future is around a self-driving network where humans literally have to do nothing,” he said. “It's probably weird for people to hear the CEO of a networking company say that… but that's exactly what we should be wishing for.”

    Rahim believes AI-driven automation is the latest phase in computer networking’s evolution, which began with the rise of TCP/IP and the internet, was accelerated by faster and more efficient silicon, and then made manageable by advances in software.

    Continue reading
  • Pictured: Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way
    We speak to scientists involved in historic first snap – and no, this isn't the M87*

    Astronomers have captured a clear image of the gigantic supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy for the first time.

    Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, is 27,000 light-years from Earth. Scientists knew for a while there was a mysterious object in the constellation of Sagittarius emitting strong radio waves, though it wasn't really discovered until the 1970s. Although astronomers managed to characterize some of the object's properties, experts weren't quite sure what exactly they were looking at.

    Years later, in 2020, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a pair of scientists, who mathematically proved the object must be a supermassive black hole. Now, their work has been experimentally verified in the form of the first-ever snap of Sgr A*, captured by more than 300 researchers working across 80 institutions in the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. 

    Continue reading
  • Shopping for malware: $260 gets you a password stealer. $90 for a crypto-miner...
    We take a look at low, low subscription prices – not that we want to give anyone any ideas

    A Tor-hidden website dubbed the Eternity Project is offering a toolkit of malware, including ransomware, worms, and – coming soon – distributed denial-of-service programs, at low prices.

    According to researchers at cyber-intelligence outfit Cyble, the Eternity site's operators also have a channel on Telegram, where they provide videos detailing features and functions of the Windows malware. Once bought, it's up to the buyer how victims' computers are infected; we'll leave that to your imagination.

    The Telegram channel has about 500 subscribers, Team Cyble documented this week. Once someone decides to purchase of one or more of Eternity's malware components, they have the option to customize the final binary executable for whatever crimes they want to commit.

    Continue reading
  • Ukrainian crook jailed in US for selling thousands of stolen login credentials
    Touting info on 6,700 compromised systems will get you four years behind bars

    A Ukrainian man has been sentenced to four years in a US federal prison for selling on a dark-web marketplace stolen login credentials for more than 6,700 compromised servers.

    Glib Oleksandr Ivanov-Tolpintsev, 28, was arrested by Polish authorities in Korczowa, Poland, on October 3, 2020, and extradited to America. He pleaded guilty on February 22, and was sentenced on Thursday in a Florida federal district court. The court also ordered Ivanov-Tolpintsev, of Chernivtsi, Ukraine, to forfeit his ill-gotten gains of $82,648 from the credential theft scheme.

    The prosecution's documents [PDF] detail an unnamed, dark-web marketplace on which usernames and passwords along with personal data, including more than 330,000 dates of birth and social security numbers belonging to US residents, were bought and sold illegally.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022