Astronomers are constantly scanning the skies for the asteroid that could end life as we know it on Earth. President Obama has recently recognized asteroids as a real threat, increasing funding to asteroid-tracking programs by $17 million in 2011. Further, he has allocated some of NASA’s resources to a spacecraft that would carry astronauts to an asteroid around 2025 — in hopes of learning how to nudge one away from the Earth.
But for now, the hunt for dangerous asteroids is staying on Earth. Space.com reports, that the view from here has become significantly sharper recently. The world’s biggest digital camera is now scanning the skies from Maui's Haleakala Mauna Kea Observatory, hoping to spot dangerous asteroids before they spot us. The scope contains a 1,400 megapixel digital camera. It is designed to snap seemingly endless photos of the night skies, all the while looking for asteroids.
This latest asteroid-hunting mission is known as the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). Nick Kaiser is the astronomer who leads it. As he told Space.com, "Although modest in size, this telescope is on the cutting edge of technology. It can image a patch of sky about 40 times the area of the full moon, much larger than any similar-sized telescope on Earth or in space." Pan-STARRS’s project leaders say “the world is a significantly safer place” because of this telescope camera."
According to Space.com, the Pan-STARRS camera will take 500 photos of night sky, sending a continuous line of data to the Maui High Performance Computing Center for analysis. Experts there will study the photos, looking for differences in the skies as compared to old photos. If something large and bright is moving straight towards us, they will quickly be able to see it.
Asteroids are thought to be material that was left over from the formation of the solar system. Astronomers estimate that if all the asteroids were gathered together into one object, the object would be less than 932 miles across. Nonetheless, if one were to strike the Earth, the effects would be devastating. Scientists are currently tracking Apophis, a killer asteroid that may or may not strike the Earth in 2029. If it does, experts say “it will pack the energy of 65,000 Hiroshima bombs — enough to wipe out a small country or kick up an 800-ft. tsunami.” At the very least, now we'll see it coming.
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