From U Washington via Heraldnet: “UW scientists may save the Earth using computer algorithms”

U Washington

University of Washington

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HeraldNet

Jun 29th, 2017
Katherine Long

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Andrew Connolly, left, director of DIRAC, a new institute for intensive survey astrophysics at the University of Washington, and Zeljko Ivezic, a professor of astronomy and a key player in the development of software for the LSST telescope in Chile, stand in the planetarium at the UW. They’re involved in a major project to create a map of all the asteroids in our solar system, and to figure out which ones might pose a danger to Earth. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times) [U Washington]

Scientists at the University of Washington are writing computer algorithms that could one day save the world — and that’s no exaggeration.

Working away in the university’s quiet Physics/Astronomy building, these scientists are teaching computers how to sift through massive amounts of data to identify asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

Together with 60 colleagues at six other universities, the 20 UW scientists are part of a massive new data project to catalog space itself, using the largest digital camera ever made.

Five years from now, a sky-scanning telescope under construction in Chile will begin photographing the night sky with a 3,200-megapixel camera. The telescope will have the power to peer into the solar system and beyond, and track things we have never been able to track before — including asteroids, the rubble left behind during the formation of the solar system.

LSST


LSST Camera, built at SLAC



LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile, a 2,682-meter-high mountain in Coquimbo Region, in northern Chile, alongside the existing Gemini South and Southern Astrophysical Research Telescopes.

When it is up and running, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will produce 20 terabytes of images every night, and will be able to photograph half the night sky every three days, said Andrew Connolly, one of the UW astronomers working on the project.

It will replace the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which dates back to 1998, and which was only able to cover one-eighth the sky over 10 years.

SDSS Telescope at Apache Point Observatory, NM, USA

The LSST’s mission is different from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which sends back detailed photos of specific regions of space, but does not take vast surveys of everything in the sky.

NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

The danger asteroids pose became clear in 2013, when more than 1,000 people were reportedly injured after a meteor exploded near the Russian town of Chelyabinsk. (Meteorites are closely related to asteroids.)

And 66 million years ago, many scientists believe, an asteroid the size of a mountain smashed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, dramatically changing Earth’s environment and wiping out the dinosaurs.

Scientists have already plotted the orbits of more than 700,000 known asteroids in the solar system, said Željko Ivezic, a UW astronomy professor and project scientist for LSST. The LSST will help astronomers identify an estimated 5 million more.

That’s why teaching a computer to identify asteroids is such vital work.

See the full article here .

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