Astronomers testing next-gen asteroid-hunting algorithm discover potentially hazardous object

Scientists explain how the new HelioLinc3D software works to The Register

Astronomers have spotted a potentially hazardous asteroid thanks to a new algorithm that will be deployed in the upcoming Vera C Rubin Observatory in Chile, which is currently under construction.

Asteroid 2022 SF289 was first spotted last year when researchers began testing the HelioLinc3D algorithm on data collected in the ATLAS survey, a NASA-funded project led by researchers at the University of Hawaii who are developing an early warning asteroid system.

They found the 600-foot-long (183 meter) space rock, and analyzed its trajectory to designate it a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA). PHAs are defined as near Earth asteroids that are larger than 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter and that could come within 5 million miles (8 million km) of our planet's orbit as it continues to circle the Sun. 

The asteroid isn't expected to pose much of a threat in the future.

Scientists are most excited about the algorithm's ability to hunt for more hazardous objects in the future, however. HelioLinc3D was designed for the Rubin Observatory, which will support the Simonyi Survey Telescope made up of an 8.4-meter mirror and a giant  3,200-megapixel camera.

The power of HelioLinc3D is that we can make 'impossible' discoveries of asteroids that were never sighted four times in a single night.

"By demonstrating the real-world effectiveness of the software that Rubin will use to look for thousands of yet-unknown potentially hazardous asteroids, the discovery of 2022 SF289 makes us all safer," Ari Heinze, a the principal developer of HelioLinc3D and a researcher at the University of Washington, said in statement. 

He explained to The Register that the software outperforms current algorithm-hunting techniques because it can process observations taken from multiple nights, meaning scientists can discover new asteroids more easily without having to track them more carefully with ground-based telescopes.

"The basic problem is that whenever you try to push your telescope and detector to the limit in terms of seeing very faint things you always get a lot of 'junk' detections that look like faint asteroids but are actually produced by glare from stars, satellite trails, cosmic rays, electronic detector artifacts, and other things. That's why the normal algorithms, which try to discover an asteroid based on just one night of data, can't discover asteroids that were only sighted two or three times," he said.

"The power of HelioLinc3D is that we can make 'impossible' discoveries of asteroids that were never sighted four times in a single night. To do this, we first find all the sets of two or three detections in a line on any night. The vast majority of these are junk, but some are real asteroids," he said. HelioLinc3D considers many factors, like the Sun's gravity and orbital mechanics, to assess objects.

"Any one of these sets, individually, looks like junk – and thousands of similar sets on each night really are​ junk – but the fact that this particular sequence of sightings lines up along a perfect orbit from night to night proves that they correspond to a real asteroid."

Space rocks are difficult to spot, and the new software gives astronomers a better chance of discovering them even if they can't gather enough quality data in a single sighting.

Scientists have discovered about 2,350 potentially hazardous objects, and reckon there are thousands more lurking in space. It's important to find these asteroids in case one of them is dangerous. They hope that the upcoming Rubin Observatory will unveil more near-Earth objects and help governments and space agencies improve their planetary defence strategies. 

"We can prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth only if we know ahead of time that it's going to. As NASA's DART mission proved, we do have the ability to change asteroid orbits. But it takes time to launch a mission like DART. We need years of warning – decades, if possible – to be confident of preventing an asteroid impact. The quest to find all the potentially hazardous asteroids aims to make sure we have that warning," Heinze told us. ® 

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