A new artificial intelligence algorithm programmed to hunt down potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids has discovered the first space rock.
The nearly 600-foot-wide (180 meters) asteroid has been named 2022 SF289 and is expected to approach 140,000 miles (225,000 kilometers) from Earth. This distance is shorter than the distance between our planet and the moon, which averages 238,855 miles (384,400 km). This is close enough to identify the rock as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA), but that doesn’t mean it will impact Earth in the foreseeable future.
The HelioLinc3D program that found the asteroid was developed to help the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, currently under construction in northern Chile, conduct its upcoming 10-year survey of the night sky by searching for space rocks near Earth. Therefore, the algorithm could be vital in giving scientists information about space rocks on a collision course with Earth.
“By demonstrating the real-world effectiveness of the software Rubin will use to search for thousands of yet unknown potentially dangerous asteroids, the discovery of 2022 SF289 makes us all safer,” Vera C. Rubin researcher Ari Heinze said in a statement.
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Tens of millions of space rocks, from asteroids a few feet in size to moon-sized dwarf planets, are circling the solar system. These space rocks are remnants of material that originally formed planets about 4.5 billion years ago.
While most of these objects are located far from Earth, most asteroids are located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, while some have orbits that bring them closer to Earth. Sometimes it’s alarmingly close.
Space rocks approaching Earth are defined as near-Earth objects (NEOs), and asteroids approaching within about 5 million miles of the planet receive a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA). situation. However, this does not mean that they will affect the planet. Just as with 2022 SF289, no currently known PHA poses an impact risk for at least the next 100 years. Astronomers search for potentially dangerous asteroids and monitor their orbits to make sure they’re not headed for a collision with the planet.
This new PHA was found when the asteroid hunting algorithm was paired with data from the ATLAS survey in Hawaii as a test of its effectiveness before Rubin was completed.
The discovery of 2022 SF289 showed that HelioLinc3D was able to detect asteroids with fewer observations than current space rock hunting techniques would allow.
Rubin ready to join the potentially dangerous asteroid hunt
Searching for potentially dangerous asteroids involves taking images of parts of the sky at least four times a night. When astronomers see a moving point of light moving in a clear straight line across a series of images, they can be pretty sure they’ve found an asteroid. Further observations are then made to better constrain the orbit of these space rocks around the sun.
But the new algorithm can speed up the whole process by detecting from just two images.
About 2,350 PHAs have been discovered so far, and while none threaten to hit Earth in the near future, astronomers aren’t quite ready to relax as they know there are many potentially dangerous space rocks yet to be discovered. .
It is estimated that the Vera Rubin Observatory could reveal as many as 3,000 potentially dangerous asteroids that have not been discovered so far.
Rubin’s 27-foot-wide (8.4-meter) mirror and massive 3,200-megapixel camera will revisit locations in the night sky twice a night, instead of observations made four times a night by existing telescopes. Hence the creation of HelioLinc3D, a code that can find asteroids in Rubin’s dataset even with less current observations.
However, the creators of the algorithm wanted to give the software a test run before Rubin’s build was complete. This meant testing whether it could find an asteroid in the data already collected; this data contains too few observations to screen for algorithms currently used.
With ATLAS data presented as such a test subject, HelioLinc3D set out to search for PHAs and hit paydirt on July 18, 2023, revealing 2022 SF289. This PHA was detected by ATLAS on September 19, 2022, when it was 3 million miles from Earth. ATLAS detected this new PHA three times over four nights, but not four times in the same night, meaning existing surveys missed it. By combining the data pieces from four nights, HelioLinc3D was able to identify the PHA.
“Any investigation will have difficulty discovering objects close to the limit of sensitivity, such as 2022 SF289, but HelioLinc3D shows that it is possible to recover these faint objects as long as they are visible for several nights,” said ATLAS astronomer Larry Denneau. “This actually gives us a ‘bigger, better’ telescope.”
Once the location of 2022 SF289 has been pinpointed, astronomers can follow up with other telescopes to confirm the presence of PHA.
“This is just a small taste of what can be expected from the Rubin Observatory in less than two years, when HelioLinc3D will discover an object like this every night,” said Rubin scientist and HelioLinc3D team leader Mario Jurić. “But more broadly, it’s a preview of the upcoming era of data-intensive astronomy. From HelioLinc3D to AI-powered code, the next decade of discoveries will be a story of progress in algorithms as well as in new, large telescopes.”
The discovery of 2022 SF289 was announced in the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Electronics Circular MPEC 2023-O26.
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