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Astronomers chart asteroid threat

Astronomers chart asteroid threat

Astronomers chart asteroid threat

A team of astronomers has stepped up a project which one day could help to preserve the Earth from annihilation.

The team from Queen’s University in Belfast is monitoring asteroids in space to see if they are on a collision course with our planet.

Their crucial data will be fed into an international programme for protecting the Earth from any future impact.

On average 30 to 40 Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – asteroids or comets moving close to Earth – are found each month.

High-performance telescopes

More than 3,000 NEOs have now been found so far.

The team of astronomers at Queen’s will be tracking these objects each week using large high-performance telescopes.

The UK Astrometry and Photometry Programme (UKAPP) for Near-Earth Objects, based at the university, is using the Faulkes Telescope North, which is physically located on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Astronomers chart asteroid threat

Astronomers chart asteroid threat

At the end of this year they will also start using the twin Faulkes Telescope South at Siding Spring, Australia.

The telescopes’ mirror size of 2m allows astronomers to see fainter NEOs.

Dr Alan Fitzsimmons, Reader in Observational Astrophysics at the university and the project’s leader, told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster that it was likely that the Earth would be hit by an asteroid.

“In fact, we know that an asteroid will hit us at some point in the future.

“Of course, these things are out there and they just randomly hit us when the Earth gets in the way.

“However, generally it is not a 24-hour or even a 45-minute warning that we get. It is normally timescales of years or even decades.”

Dr Fitzsimmons said that his project was acting as an “early, early warning system for the Earth”.

Earth’s atmosphere

He said that these long lead times gave scientists at the European Space Agency time to develop a strategy for dealing with an asteroid on a collision course.

Any object smaller than 50m across will not usually make it through the Earth’s atmosphere intact so Dr Fitzsimmons is training his telescope on asteroids which are 50 to 100m across or larger.

“We are looking at a series of asteroids two or three times a week now with these telescopes in Hawaii and Australia,” he said.

“There are 30 or 40 new objects discovered every month that we want to keep an eye on.

“So we only concentrate on the ones that do pass particularly close to us or are predicted to pass close in the next century or so.”