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New algorithm discovers first ‘potentially dangerous asteroid’ and proves that it can make the earth a bit safer

Using a new algorithm – developed to spot potentially dangerous asteroids – researchers have found out a space rock about 180 meters in size. Although this one too has been labeled ‘potentially dangerous’, there is no need to panic; we have nothing to fear from the space rock for now.

And that means that the joy prevails among researchers. Because with the discovery of this space rock – designated 2022 SF289 – they have shown that their algorithm can do what it was designed to do. Namely: discovering many (relatively large) space rocks that venture into the vicinity of the earth on the basis of relatively few and fragmented observations.

The hunt for potentially dangerous space rocks
There are tens of millions of space rocks in our solar system. Their size ranges from pebbles to dwarf planets the size of our moon. Most of these space rocks are at great distances from Earth, but a small number venture into the vicinity of Earth during their orbit around the sun. These space rocks are also referred to as near-Earth rocks. The closest near-Earth objects – space rocks that approach the Earth to a distance of about 8 million kilometers or less – deserve some extra attention. And if they also have such a large size that they could cause serious problems in a collision with the earth, they are labeled ‘potentially dangerous’. Such potentially dangerous asteroids are systematically sought, for example within NASA’s ATLAS program. This is usually done by taking four pictures of the night sky at night and looking for points of light in those pictures that move in a straight line across the night sky. The method has already resulted in the discovery of some 2,350 potentially dangerous asteroids, but thousands more are said to be awaiting discovery.

Vera Rubin C. Observatory
Soon the hunt for those potentially dangerous asteroids will get a new impetus. And thanks to it Vera Rubin C. Observatory which should become active in early 2025. The observatory will scan the night sky for (potentially dangerous) asteroids. Unlike other near-Earth observatories, it looks Vera Rubin C. Observatory nonetheless, each night only twice – instead of four times – to the same place. And that means that researchers need a new algorithm to get through it Vera Rubin C. Observatory collected dataset to be able to detect moving points of light, or near-Earth objects, with certainty. And so researchers decided to develop such an algorithm.

The result is a brand new algorithm that the scientists have dubbed HelioLinc3D. And of course the researchers were eager to test that. But that became difficult. Because it Vera C. Rubin Observatory is still under construction. And so the scientists took a different approach. They released the brand new algorithm on already analyzed data collected by ATLAS. The aim was to check whether the algorithm could still find new asteroids in that data. Since all asteroids that had been spotted four times had already been filtered out of the data, these were asteroids that had actually been spotted too few times by ATLAS to be detected by existing algorithms.

2022 SF89
And soon it was hit. Because on July 18, HelioLinc3D fished out of the ATLAS data a previously overlooked asteroid: the 180 meter long 2022 SF89. Research showed that ATLAS had already spotted the asteroid three times. But because it had happened over several nights—and not four times in one night—the existing algorithms never picked the asteroid. HelioLinc3D did, and the researchers say that’s because these are the conditions under which the algorithm functions well: the algorithm was developed to combine fragments of data.

The existence of 2022 SF89 has now been confirmed by additional observations. 2022 SF289 appears to be an Apollo asteroid measuring about 180 meters in length. When the distance between the space rock and the earth is smallest, it is only 225,300 kilometers. With that, the asteroid ventures closer to our planet than the moon at times!

Do not panic
While the asteroid’s orbit and size warrant the “potentially dangerous” label, 2022 SF289 is not something to lose sleep over. Scientists are sure that it does not pose a threat to the Earth at least in the near future.

Here you can see the trajectory of 2022 SF89 in green. In blue the orbit of the Earth (which is therefore very close to the orbit of 2022 SF89). The orbit of Venus is also indicated in orange. And in red the orbit of Mars. Image: Joachim Moeyens/University of Washington/OpenSpace.

Up to more
The detection of 2022 SF289 is the prelude to more, promises Mario Jurić, leader of the research team that developed HelioLinc3D. “This is just a small taste of what we can expect from it within two years Rubin Observatory, when HelioLinc3D will discover an object (such as 2022 SF289, ed.) every night.” In all, more than 3,000 potentially dangerous asteroids are expected to be found out.

Planetary Defense
Whether there will also be specimens that will (or may) pose a real threat to the earth remains to be seen. But if that is the case, we are not completely powerless. The American space agency recently showed that it is possible to change the trajectory of a space rock by crashing a spacecraft onto the space rock. nonetheless, it is desirable that we discover such a space stone early, because it obviously takes quite some time to set up such a mission. It may also be necessary – certainly with a somewhat larger space stone – that some time elapses between the impact on the earth to be avoided and the blow dealt. As time passes, the effect of such a small tap becomes increasingly greater. Compare it to a car that is heading at high speed for the heart of a ten meter wide wall. If you tap that car ten meters from the wall, causing the nose to turn a few degrees off its original course, it will still hit the wall. But now imagine that you already change the course of the car in a similar way ten kilometers away from the wall. Then it will miss the wall.

That’s how it works with asteroids: the effect of a small tap gets bigger and bigger as time goes by. And that is why it can also be crucial that we discover potentially dangerous asteroids in time. The investigation for such asteroids has already intensified enormously in recent years, resulting in the discovery of more than 2,000 potentially dangerous asteroids, almost all of which do not pose a real threat to Earth, at least in the short term. But it is estimated that there are also about 3000 still waiting to be found out. And armed with tools like it Vera C. Rubin Observatory and the new algorithm, researchers hope to also find those asteroids and gradually make the earth a little safer.

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