Tracking System Scans the Night Sky for Potentially Hazardous Asteroids

by Michael Freeman

While we’ve long had systems in place to help detect dangers from space, there’s always room for improvement. Luckily, a new tracking system enables us to scan the entire night sky for potentially dangerous asteroids.

It may surprise you to learn we have an asteroid defense system constantly scanning the sky, but only in one hemisphere. That turns out to be a thing of the past, as the NASA-funded Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) now operates in the southern hemisphere.

Universe Today states the original ATLAS system set up two telescopes on Haleakala and Maunaloa, two separate locations in Hawaii. Becoming fully operational in 2017, they could scan the sky every 24 hours to watch for asteroids. The problem was the vantage point only allowed scientists to view half the sky. Because of that, NASA funded two more telescopes for the southern hemisphere. Now, there is one in South Africa and the other is in Chile.

The organizations would have completed the telescopes earlier, but the COVID pandemic slowed the installation process. Additionally, supply chain issues slowed progress even further. Nevertheless, they are now operational and observers in Hawaii can now remotely monitor the night sky all over the world.

The telescopes are already experiencing success. For instance, the South African observatory identified its first Near-Earth Object (NEO) on January 22. Calling it 2022 BK, it’s a 100-meter-long asteroid that poses no threat to Earth. Nonetheless, this success shows the telescopes are more than capable of locating possible threats in the future.

The ATLAS system can provide us with three weeks of warning for asteroids large enough to cause severe damage to Earth. It may not seem like a lot of time, but it’s better than nothing and gives us time to plan for a countermeasure.

NASA Aims to Probe a Golden Asteroid Valued at $10 Quadrillion

While the ATLAS system can help warn us of potentially dangerous asteroids and steer them away, the giant space rocks can also serve other purposes. One of those is probing, as NASA plans to do with an asteroid worth quadrillions of dollars.

If you were hoping we’d strike it rich, the keyword here is “probing.” The U.S. Sun reports NASA plans to probe its surface, not mine the rock, to see how much it’s really worth. Additionally, the organization will study a crater to attempt to learn how to deflect an asteroid of this size from hitting Earth.

Dubbed Psych 16, it’s nestled between Mars’ and Jupiter’s orbits and scientists believe it’s made of solid metal. Its luster suggests it’s made largely of nickel, iron, or gold and its value is around $10 quadrillion.

For reference, this asteroid’s worth far eclipses all of Earth’s economy, which sits at around $84.5 trillion.