Killer asteroids lurk around us – a new cloud-based tool can help spot them

There are plenty of asteroids to track in our solar system and many yet to be discovered.

Cloud-based astrodynamics platform to discover and track asteroids

Asteroid discovery and tracking is essential for planetary defense against killer asteroid impacts. The detailed astronomical data associated with it is also useful in providing new information to astronomers. Aiding in this task is a new algorithm called THOR, which has now been shown to be able to find asteroids. It ran on the Asteroid Institute’s cloud-based astrodynamics platform to identify and track asteroids.

Visualization of ADAM and THOR asteroid trajectories

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 complete map of the solar system gives astronomers critical information for both science and planetary defense,” said Matthew Holman, energizer and research algorithm expert at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and former director of the Minor Planet Center. “Trackletless algorithms such as THOR greatly expand the types of datasets astronomers can use to create such a map.”

THOR was co-created by Mario Jurić, UW Associate Professor of Astronomy and Director of the UW DiRAC Institute, and UW Astronomy graduate student Joachim Moeyens. They and their UW collaborators unveiled THOR in an article published last year in The Astronomical Journal. It connects bright spots in different images of the sky that correspond to the orbits of asteroids. Unlike current state-of-the-art codes, THOR does not require the telescope to observe the sky in a particular pattern for asteroids to be detectable.

Asteroid Institute ADAM STK Visualization

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

“The work of the Asteroid Institute is critical as astronomers reach the limits of what is detectable with current techniques and telescopes,” said Jurić, who is also a senior data science researcher at the UW eScience Institute. “Our team is excited to work alongside the Asteroid Institute to enable solar system mapping using Google Cloud.”

Asteroid orbits.

Researchers can now begin systematic explorations of large datasets that were previously not usable for discovering asteroids. THOR recognizes asteroids and, above all, calculates their orbits well enough to be recognized by the Minor Planet Center as tracked asteroids.

Moeyens searched for a 30-day window of images in the NOIRLab source catalog, a collection of nearly 68 billion observations taken by telescopes at the National Observatory for Optical Astronomy between 2012 and 2019, and submitted a small initial subset of findings at Minor Planet Center recognition and validation. Now that the computational discovery technique has been validated, thousands of new discoveries from the catalog and other datasets are expected to follow.

The asteroids of our solar system.

“Discovering and tracking asteroids is essential to understanding our solar system, enabling space development, and protecting our planet from asteroid impacts,” 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 are using the power of massive computing to not only enable more discoveries from existing telescopes, but also to find and track asteroids in historical sky images that had previously gone unnoticed because they had never been intended for asteroid research.

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 Smotherman , September 15, 2021, The Astronomical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/ac042b

The B612 Foundation recently announced an additional $2.3 million in leadership gifts to advance these efforts.

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

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