Another close shave for Earth

Artist's impression of an asteroid.

Artist's impression of an asteroid. A new telescope called Pan-STARRS has just discovered one that will come within 6.5 million kilometres of Earth in mid-October 2010.

The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) PS1 telescope has discovered an asteroid that will come within 6.5 million kilometres of Earth in mid-October.

The object is about 45 metres in diameter and was discovered in images acquired on September 16, when it was about 32 million kilometres away.

It is the first “potentially hazardous object” (PHO) to be discovered by the Pan-STARRS survey and has been given the designation “2010 ST3.”

“Although this particular object won’t hit Earth in the immediate future, its discovery shows that Pan-STARRS is now the most sensitive system dedicated to discovering potentially dangerous asteroids,” said Robert Jedicke, a University of Hawaii member of the PS1 Scientific Consortium, who is working on the asteroid data from the telescope.

2010 ST3

Two images of asteroid 2010 ST3 (circled in green) taken by PS1 about 15 minutes apart on the night of September 16 show the asteroid moving against the background field of stars and galaxies.

“This object was discovered when it was too far away to be detected by other asteroid surveys,” Jedicke noted.

Most of the largest PHOs have already been catalogued, but scientists suspect that there are many more under a kilometre across that have not yet been discovered. These could cause devastation on a regional scale if they ever hit our planet.

Such impacts are estimated to occur once every few thousand years.

Pan-STARRS expects to discover tens of thousands of new asteroids every year with sufficient precision to accurately calculate their orbits around the Sun.

Any sizable object that looks like it may come close to Earth within the next 50 years or so will be labelled “potentially hazardous” and carefully monitored.

NASA experts believe that, given several years warning, it should be possible to organise a space mission to deflect any asteroid that is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth.

Pan-STARRS has broader goals as well. PS1 and its bigger brother, PS4, which will be operational later in this decade, are expected to discover a million or more asteroids in total, as well as more distant targets such as variable stars, supernovae, and mysterious energy bursts from galaxies across more than half the universe. PS1 became fully operational in June 2010.

Adapted from information issued by the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics / Rob Ratkowski / PS1SC / NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

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