The Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii (RCUH) is a state agency, established in 1965, and is attached to the University of Hawaii for administrative purposes. Its fundamental mission is to support the research, development and training programs of the University of Hawaii.
RCUH and the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) at the University of Hawaii have developed a project called the Asteroid Terrestrial - impact Last Alert System (ATLAS). It is funded by NASA's Near Earth Observation Program and will provide ATLAS with $5 million over five years. $3.5 million will be designated for design and construction in the first three years and the remainder will be allocated for operating the system in the following two years.
The ATLAS system is designed to compliment the Pan-STARRS project for locating Earth bound asteroids and comets. ATLAS will be a vital alert system for incoming planetary disasters, namely, asteroids. Astronomers expect the ATLAS system to be fully operational by the end of 2015.
ATLAS is an asteroid 'quick alert' cousin to the Pan-STARRS project. Pan-STARRS will eventually consist of 4 - 1.8m telescopes located on Mount Haleakala each hosting powerful cameras for discovering and characterizing Earth-approaching objects that are threatening Earth impact years, decades and even centuries into the future. Whereas Pan-STARRS takes a month to complete one sweep of the sky in a deep but narrow survey, ATLAS will search the sky several times every night in a closer and wider path to help identify the smaller asteroids that are in closer proximity to Earth. ATLAS will track asteroids and alert the Minor Planet Center (MPC) before the asteroids make a final plunge to Earth.
The MPC is a global center that operates at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and funded by a NASA grant. It was established for the purpose of receiving (collection, computation, checking) and distributing and dissemination of astrometric information worldwide about asteroids, comets, small moons of major planets, minor planets and natural satellites.
ATLAS will consist of two telescopes each fitted with cameras of up to 110 megapixels, at two locations approximately 100 miles apart in the Hawaiian Islands. One observatory will be located on Mauna Loa, Hawai'i and a second observatory on Haleakala, 100 miles northwest on Maui.
When fully operational, the two-telescope ATLAS system will survey the sky four times each night and take around 3,000 images per night.
The ATLAS data will be downloaded almost immediately, thereby lowering the time between observing the sky and reporting the detection of asteroids to a few minutes. The telescopes and domes are designed to work robotically with the goal of operating whenever the sky is dark and clear.
The ATLAS system successfully achieved first light on 12/12/13 with a prototype 7 inch Pathfinder telescope as it observed hundreds of main-belt asteroids. These were not new discoveries, but the observation quality proved good enough to be reported to the MPC.
Construction of the two ATLAS telescope optical tube assemblies awarded to DFM Engineering is on track. The two wide-field telescopes being built for ATLAS will take excellent images over a 7.5-degree field of view.
The mirrors are being ground, the lenses are being fabricated and the mechanical parts for the optical tube assemblies are designed and being machined at DFM Engineering.
The ATLAS asteroid detection system is on track to patrol the visible sky looking for faint objects moving through space. Astronomer and project scientist, Dr. John Tonry compared ATLAS's sensitivity to detecting a match flame in New York City when viewed from San Francisco.
Dr. Tonry suggests the ATLAS system will offer a one-week warning for a 50-yard diameter asteroid or "city killer" and a three-week warning for a 150-yard diameter "county killer". "That's enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure, and be alerted to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts," Dr. Tonry said.
Asteroids are typically composed of a solid collection of rocks and dust and are irregular in shape. They do not have atmospheres and cannot support life, as we know it. Most asteroids obit our sun and reside in the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, though some can orbit much closer to the Earth. The gravitational tug from the planets in the solar system can pull an asteroid from its normal orbit and send it on a collision course with the Earth.
For example, had the meteorite that recently hit Chelyabinsk, Russia on 02/15/2013 (see video) arrived at Earth at a different time of day, it could have hit Moscow, Belfast, Dublin or any number of other cities with a similar latitude to that of Chelyabinsk. And if the much larger asteroid, asteroid 2012 DA14, had hit the Earth (it passed the Earth harmlessly on the same day as the Chelyainsk asteroid) an entire city would have been completely destroyed.
Scientists estimate that these "city killer" asteroids impact Earth about once every few hundred years. However, this warning time for evacuation of a potential disaster is a critical element to estimate in an asteroid's final plunge to Earth.
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