Gigantic asteroids that crashed into the Earth have wiped off much of the planet’s surface in the past, and if we’re not careful, they could crash into our planet yet again. To avoid the disastrous consequences of such an incident, Ed Lu and Danica Remy of the Asteroid Institute started working on a new project to keep track of as many large asteroids as possible.
Lu., a former NASA astronaut, led a team that developed a new algorithm called THOR, which harnesses computing power in order to compare points of light seen in different images of the sky at night time. Then, these individual points of light are pieced together to track an individual asteroid’s path in the solar system. THOR has already discovered about 104 asteroids with this system.
What sets THOR apart
While NASA and other space research organizations have their own ongoing asteroid searches, all of them have faced the challenge of parsing telescopic images with thousands of asteroids in them. Some of these telescopes are unable to take multiple images of the same part of the night sky consecutively, which makes it difficult for astronomers to tell if the same asteroid is visible in different photos. THOR, however, can make that connection.
“What’s magical about THOR is, it realizes that out of all those asteroids, this one in a certain image, and this one in another image four nights later, and this one seven nights later are all the same object and can be put together as the trajectory of a real asteroid,” Lu said.
THOR is not federally funded
THOR is likely to have many of the same types of customers as government-backed agencies like the European Space Agency and NASA, including mission planners who would like to map out their spacecraft’s trajectories and scientists. THOR, however, is not funded by the federal government; its money comes from private contributions made by thousands of donors.
This latest effort by B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute is in line with the non-profit’s broader vision. Danica Remy, the President of B612, said, “B612 was founded with the goal to protect the planet from asteroid impacts. That is our primary goal, to build tools and technologies that will allow us to detect, map, and deflect asteroids.”
The limitations of THOR
Although THOR can map out the trajectories of multiple asteroids in the neighborhood, there are a few important caveats. Since its images are slightly dated, an asteroid that has not recently been observed is essentially “lost” at this point. More importantly, THOR’s first tranche of asteroid orbits comes directly from the asteroid belt that circles between Jupiter and Mars, not those closer to Earth that have orbits which could overlap with our planet’s own.