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Killer asteroids are hiding around us - a new cloud-based tool can help detect them

Asteroids in our solar system

There are a lot of asteroids to track in our solar system and many have not yet been discovered.

Cloud-based astrodynamics platform for discovering and tracking asteroids

The discovery and tracking of asteroids is essential for the planet’s defense against the deadly impacts of asteroids. The detailed astronomical data associated with it are also useful to provide new perspectives for astronomers. A new algorithm called THOR, which has now been shown to be able to find asteroids, helps with this task. It runs on the asteroid institute’s cloud-based astrodynamics platform for asteroid identification and tracking.

Visualization of the trajectories of the asteroids ADAM and THOR

Visualization of the trajectories through the solar system of the asteroids discovered by ADAM and THOR. Credit: B612 Asteroid Institute / University of Washington DiRAC Institute / OpenSpace Project

A new algorithm developed by[{” attribute=””>University of Washington researchers to discover asteroids in the solar system has proved its mettle. The first candidate asteroids identified by the algorithm — known as Tracklet-less Heliocentric Orbit Recovery, or THOR — have been confirmed by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center.

The Asteroid Institute, a program of B612 Foundation, has been running THOR on its cloud-based astrodynamics platform — Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping, or ADAM — to identify and track asteroids. With confirmation of these new asteroids by the Minor Planet Center and their addition to its registry, researchers using the Asteroid Institute’s resources can submit thousands of additional new discoveries.

“A comprehensive map of the solar system provides astronomers with essential insights into both science and planetary defense,” said Matthew Holman, a dynamist and search algorithm expert at the Center for Astrophysics. Harvard & Smithsonian and former director of the Minor Planet Center. “Tracklet-free algorithms, such as THOR, greatly expand the types of datasets that astronomers can use to build such a map.”

THOR was co-created by Mario Jurić, associate professor of astronomy at UW and director of the UR DiRAC Institute, and Joachim Moeyens, a graduate student in UW astronomy. They and their UW collaborators revealed THOR in a paper published last year in Astronomical Journal. It connects points of light in different images of the sky, which are consistent with the orbits of asteroids. Unlike current state-of-the-art codes, THOR does not require the telescope to observe the sky in a certain pattern for asteroids to be detectable.


ADAM STK Asteroid Institute View

The Asteroid Institute’s ADAM platform is an open-source computing system that runs large-scale astrodynamic algorithms using Google Cloud, especially the scalable computing and storage capabilities of Google Compute Engine, Google Cloud Storage, and Google Kubernetes Engine.

“The work of the Asteroid Institute is essential because astronomers are reaching the limits of what can be discovered with current techniques and telescopes,” said Jurić, who is also a senior researcher in data science at the UW eScience Institute. “Our team is excited to work with the Asteroid Institute to enable the mapping of the solar system using Google Cloud.”


The orbits of asteroids.

Researchers can now begin systematic explorations of large data sets that were not previously usable for asteroid discovery. THOR recognizes asteroids and, most importantly, calculates their orbits well enough to be recognized by the Center for Small Planets as tracked asteroids.

Moeyens searched a 30-day window for images from NOIRLab’s Catalog of Sources Catalog, a collection of nearly 68 billion observations made by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s telescopes between 2012 and 2019, and sent a small initial subset of discoveries to the Center for Small Planets for official recognition and validation. Now that the computational discovery technique has been validated, thousands of new discoveries from the catalog and other data sets are expected to follow.


Asteroids in our solar system.

“Discovering and tracking asteroids is crucial to understanding our solar system, enabling the development of space and protecting our planet from the impact of asteroids,” said Ed Lu, executive director of the Asteroid Institute. “With THOR running on ADAM, any telescope with an archive can now become an asteroid search telescope. We use the power of mass computing to allow not only more discoveries from existing telescopes, but also to find asteroid traces in historical images of the sky that have gone unnoticed before, because they were never intended for asteroid searches. “

Reference: “THOR: An Algorithm for Cadence-independent Asteroid Discovery” by Joachim Moeyens, Mario Jurić, Jes Ford, Dino Bektešević, Andrew J. Connolly, Siegfried Eggl, Željko Ivezić, R. Lynne Jones, J. Bryce Kalmbach and Hayden Smother , September 15, 2021, Astronomical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847 / 1538-3881 / ac042b

The B612 Foundation recently announced $ 2.3 million in leadership gifts to promote these efforts.

The collaborative efforts of Google Cloud, the B612 Asteroid Institute, and the DiRAC Institute at the University of Washington make this work possible.

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