Thursday, June 17, 2010

Earth-killer asteroids hunted from Haleakala

The little observatory at right is Earth's early warning system—our canary in the coalmine, so to speak.

(Image: The PS1 {Pan-STARRS 1} observatory atop Haleakala. Credit: Rob Ratkowski.)

One of its missions is to watch for killer asteroids—ones that could crash into the Earth with devastating effect.

Over three years or so, it is expected to locate 100,000 asteroids. If it finds one on a collision course with Earth, then there's the next problem.

What can we do about it?

Here is the response from the group led by Robert Jedicke and Richard Wainscoat: “If these are found with sufficient lead time, we may be able to nudge them out of the way.”

That raises all kinds of movie-theater fiction scenarios, but as fans of Jules Verne know, science fiction often isn't falsehood so much as a predictor of future reality.

Pan-STARRS was developed by folks at the University of Hawai's Institute for Astronomy. With a five-foot mirror and a 1,400 megapixel camera, it scans the sky looking for anything that moves against the background, or which has a significant change in brightness from night to night.

That camera (Let's see, the one you have at home has, what, 8 megapixels?) is the biggest digital camera in the world. It will take more than 500 shots per night, and the images will be processed at the Maui High Performance Computing Center.

“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," said Nick Kaiser, a UH astronomer and head of the Pan-STARRS project.

For more information on the project, see here. Another web site that deals with Pan-STARRS is here. And some press releases from the various project partners are here.

A telescope and camera of that kind of power, of course, has lots of applications. So in addition to looking for killer asteroids, Pan-STARRS 1 will be engaged in a number of other research projects.

It will be looking for “brown dwarfs” stellar bodies whose size falls in the region between small stars and giant planets. It will measure the motion of stars, measure astronomical distances, and look into dark matter and black holes, which are quite different despite their names.

Oh, and what does STARRS stand for? Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System.

Which raises the question, is there a term for something that is an acronym of an acronym? As in: PS1 is short for Pan-STARRS 1, a portion of which in turn is short for Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System.

Yep, it is a nested acronym.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

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