A new AI algorithm has successfully identified a potentially hazardous asteroid near Earth, thanks to the efforts of scientists at the University of Washington. Using a computer processing method called an algorithm, the researchers sifted through data collected by four different Earth-based telescopes to pinpoint asteroids that might pose a risk of collision with our planet.
This initiative, funded by NASA, is part of an ongoing global mission to identify and track near-Earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets. The aim is to monitor NEOs that come within 50 million kilometers of Earth’s orbit, with a particular focus on those larger than 140 meters, which could potentially cause significant damage upon impact.
The AI algorithm, called HelioLinc3D, was developed specifically to be used in conjunction with the forthcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. However, the University of Washington researchers wanted to test its effectiveness using existing telescope data. To their delight, the algorithm successfully identified a previously unknown asteroid named 2022 SF289 during its trial run.
Measuring 182 meters in length, 2022 SF289 met the criteria for a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA). However, the scientists assured that there is no immediate threat of it colliding with Earth. This discovery marks a significant milestone, as it is the first PHA to be detected using the HelioLinc3D algorithm.
The upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory, set to commence operations in early 2025, is expected to revolutionize the identification of PHAs. Equipped with a state-of-the-art camera and a large mirror, the observatory will provide detailed images and data that will greatly enhance the identification process for NEOs.
Existing telescopes often struggle to detect certain NEOs due to bright areas in space that obstruct visibility. However, the instruments on board the Rubin Observatory will overcome this limitation, allowing astronomers to discover thousands more PHAs.
Ari Heinze, a researcher at the University of Washington and one of the main developers of the HelioLinc3D algorithm, emphasized the significance of this discovery in terms of planetary safety. Heinze stated that the identification of asteroid 2022 SF289 demonstrates the practical application of the software that the Rubin Observatory will utilize to search for thousands of as-yet-unknown potentially hazardous asteroids, effectively making the world a safer place.
According to the University of Washington researchers, more than 2,350 PHAs have been identified so far. With the implementation of the HelioLinc3D algorithm, scientists hope to discover thousands more. Astronomers operating the ATLAS system, consisting of four telescopes located in Hawaii, Chile, and South Africa, identify PHAs as they observe a point of light moving unambiguously in a straight line over the image series.
The successful identification of asteroid 2022 SF289 is a testament to the power of artificial intelligence in astronomical research. As the world’s understanding and detection capabilities of PHAs continue to advance, efforts to safeguard our planet from potential asteroid impacts are becoming more robust. With the integration of innovative technologies like AI algorithms and advanced observatories, scientists are making significant strides in protecting Earth from potential cosmic threats.