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ATLAS Meteor Tracking System Gets $5M NASA Funding 104

Posted by samzenpus
from the eye-on-the-sky dept.
An anonymous reader writes "After a huge meteor recently exploded over Chelyabinsk (population 1,130,132), Russia, NASA has approved $5 million for funding for ATLAS project (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System). From the article: '"There are excellent ongoing surveys for asteroids that are capable of seeing such a rock with one to two days' warning, but they do not cover the whole sky each night, so there's a good chance that any given rock can slip by them for days to weeks. This one obviously did," astronomer John Tonry of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii told NBC News Friday.'"
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ATLAS Meteor Tracking System Gets $5M NASA Funding

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 17, 2013 @08:39PM (#42931871)

    They applied for a grant in 2011 and it was approved then. This summary implies that NASA has been scrambling this weekend to fund something in the wake of the Russian meteor explosion. The project has been in the works for YEARS.

    http://www.fallingstar.com/nasa_funding.php

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      This summary implies that NASA has been scrambling this weekend to fund something in the wake of the Russian meteor explosion. The project has been in the works for YEARS.

      So you're saying that the timing is just a coincidence?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Are you suggesting nasa launched the meteor to get funding?

        • by Anonymous Coward

          NASA: Need Another Scary Asteroid

          • NASA: Need Another Scary Asteroid

            It's been "Need Another Seven Astronauts" for years now, sorry.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          NASA launch something?

      • by Alex Pennace (27488) <alex@pennace.org> on Sunday February 17, 2013 @10:29PM (#42932361) Homepage

        So you're saying that the timing is just a coincidence?

        It passes the sniff test. Consider the possible scenarios:

        1. As per http://www.fallingstar.com/nasa_funding.php [fallingstar.com], this has been in the works since 2011, grant money was released in January 2013, and only now is the mainstream media reporting on it.
        2. An American bureaucracy approves a $5 million grant within three days, two of which are Saturday and Sunday.
        3. There was already a fully-working secret skunkworks detection system that knew months ahead of time that Chelyabinsk Oblast would be grazed by a meteor, and they kept it a secret knowing there would be a lot of grant money headed their way; the only person they told was cousin Igor back in Russia who was ideally positioned to do brisk business in underwear and trouser sales

        Which scenario is the most plausible?

        • by kdemetter (965669)

          (1) Seems most plausible. It's newsworthy today and so it's worth ( money ) mentioning it.

      • by icebike (68054)

        The article he indicated said that the funding was to be 5mil beginning Jan 2013. They just got a wake up call
        that January 1 was past

        What percentage of this will the Russians fund do you suppose?

      • "So you're saying that the timing is just a coincidence?"

        It that's not a joke then I will add that nothing, NOTHING happens in NASA that fast.

        • by sjames (1099)

          And we absolutely cannot confirm or deny the giant slingshot spotted in the Baltic.

          • by fatphil (181876)
            So is tha's what the Helsinki-Tallinn ferries have been reeling out behind them these last few months?
            • So is tha's what the Helsinki-Tallinn ferries have been reeling out behind them these last few months?

              There's no reason to start slinging slurs. The sexual orientation of the Helsinki-Tallinn is irrelevant.

      • by sjames (1099)

        The events don't coincide at all, the project was funded in 2011. The press talking about it now is absolutely not merely a coincidence, they always do this sort of thing when they get reminded that NASA exists by something space related happening.

  • by relikx (1266746) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @08:40PM (#42931889)
    The ATLAS system's funding is a step in the right direction but as the article mentions the southern pole would remain a blind spot. Still, having one to two day's notice for an affected area would go a long way. We seem to have most of the >150m asteroids located through current efforts but that still leaves thousands or millions of undetected objects capable of wiping out a city and causing further catastrophe for nuclear facilities. The cost vs. benefit seems evident, better late than never.
    • Not sure how precise they can be for objects which hit the atmosphere from 19 degrees above the horizon. You might get more deaths from the resulting evacuation than we saw from this impact.

      • by Burdell (228580) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @09:05PM (#42931999)

        For something like this (where nobody died), you wouldn't attempt an evacuation. I believe that most of the injuries were from broken glass and other falling debris; it would be enough to warn people to either get outside (away from buildings, trees, and other objects that could be blown around by a shock wave) or to stay inside away from windows.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          What if an airplane was flying near this at the time? At least you could shutdown the airspace.

          I live in Manhattan and I know the odds of something like this hitting any area but the shits scary to think about.
          What it the same even could have done in the wrong place.

          Money well spent either way.

        • Duck and Cover might have prevented a lot of the injuries.

          But we can't have that, because it can be made to look silly by the people opposed to real Civil Defense.

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          For something like this (where nobody died), you wouldn't attempt an evacuation.

          You're confident that you'd be able to make the "nobody is going to die" call before the event?

          I have to do that sort of risk assessment as part of my work (drilling high-pressure, high temperature oil wells, as per Macondo) and we're a lot more cautious about things than you sound. And we know that we're only talking about a small number of people (up to a hundred) and an environmental disaster. Not potentially thousands or te

          • by Burdell (228580)

            No, I couldn't do it; that's what trained experts are for. The concept is not that much different from the US National Weather Service offices issuing storm watches and warnings.

    • by icebike (68054)

      The ATLAS system's funding is a step in the right direction but as the article mentions the southern pole would remain a blind spot. Still, having one to two day's notice for an affected area would go a long way. We seem to have most of the >150m asteroids located through current efforts but that still leaves thousands or millions of undetected objects capable of wiping out a city and causing further catastrophe for nuclear facilities. The cost vs. benefit seems evident, better late than never.

      Further catastrophe for nuclear facilities?

      Come on, playing the nuclear card when the chances of a nuclear plant being hit by a meteor is vanishingly small seems to be a bit over the top, don't you think?. Maybe throw in your local school, so we can "think of the children" while you are at it...

      Also, meteors are far less likely to approach us from the poles. Like most things, their orbits tend to generally align with the plane of the major planets. Slightly tilted with regard to our orbit, but polar appr

    • by tloh (451585)

      24-48 hr advance warning isn't nearly enough. come on guys! we have to be on schedule to have something in place by 2130 capable of detecting a big-ass cylinder from out beyond Jupiter's orbit.

  • That meteorite was only 15 to 17 meters long.

    The size of its blast was due to its tremendous energy (a.k.a. speed) when it penetrates our atmosphere....

    Reference. [space.com]

    • Re:"Huge"?? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by MichaelSmith (789609) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @08:53PM (#42931941) Homepage Journal

      Well yeah its kinetic energy was huge. If it was one metre across and hit at 100km/s that would be huge too.

      • Really? Wouldn't it just heat up and explode sooner, higher up in the atmosphere?

        • by meglon (1001833)
          At very high rates of speed, which 100km/sec would be a flat out damn fast as the normal/average speed is more in the line of 12-20km/sec, it would be possible for it to simply punch a hole through the atmosphere without ever ablating anything.... think of it as a bow shock, if you will. There's a number of variables though... composition (iron a better choice than stony), and entry angle (steep entry more likely), but it's possible. That would definitely make a dent in anything it landed on.
          • Even at a steep entry angle it would be in the atmosphere for 2 seconds before impact.

            A 15m shpere has around 3000x the volume of a 1m one. You'd need the 1m diameter one to go over 50x faster to equal the kinetic energy of the 15m diameter one. Say over 500km/sec.

            • by meglon (1001833)
              I think you wanted to respond to MichaelSmith. I was responding to your question on whether it would simple explode in the atmosphere or not. I think it was Dyson that first suggested that not terribly large object entering the atmosphere at a very high rate of speed could actually impact the oceans floor without even touching water due to bowshock. (my caveat: it's been over 35 years since i read much on the subject, and my memory is not remotely close to what it was then. It may have been someone else
    • by Dishwasha (125561)

      I'm sorry, are your statements by chance a euphemism for something?

  • by Mister Liberty (769145) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @09:05PM (#42932001)

    no alerts are deemed necessary?

  • Peanuts? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Sunday February 17, 2013 @09:13PM (#42932041)

    5 million seems a bit like peanut change for something like this, I can't imagin that it will go far.

    • He muddled two idioms together - "peanuts" and "small change" I guess.

      • Re:Peanuts? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Areyoukiddingme (1289470) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @10:06PM (#42932249)

        Or mangled one: "pocket change".

        And yes, by government standards, it is pocket change. But astronomers have been so thoroughly beaten up in the budget battles for so many years that they've learned to get by on pocket change. Really, it doesn't take much more than that. A handful of decent telescopes at decent sites can do complete sky surveys nightly, aimed by machine, and the data fed into software that looks for lights that weren't there last night (which is code that already exists for a task absolutely ideal for a computer). The results are reviewed by the local astronomer as a sanity check, who then pushes the appropriate button to categorize the results (Good, clear night, Bad, cloudy night, Bad, bug on the telescope, etc.). The results are forwarded to a central database, washed against meteorology reports as an additional sanity check, and a report is generated and emailed to a selected bureaucrat. We don't even need to invent a new bureaucrat. It's a glance it over report, if all the software people and the astronomers have done their jobs right.

        Most of the software already exists. The $5 million pays for piecing it together, adding the few bits that are missing, like an interface for the astronomers and the report generator, plus one lonely machine in a rack in a NASA data center somewhere that acts as the clearinghouse. A competent programmer could put it all together alone in a few months. Spread around the leftover cash to buy a little more hard drive space for the participating observatories and to prop up the budget of whatever department hosts the lucky bureaucrat (because the bureaucrat's manager will whine if you don't).

        Done.

        Of course, what will actually happen is too depressing to think about, and involves assinine turf wars, cowardly non-decision-making decision makers, industry lobbyists (choose OUR con$ulting company for the software!), intellectual property arguments, random bungling and assorted stupidity.

        Meh.

        • by fatphil (181876)
          But this isn't $5m of governmental budget going to a NASA program, it's $5m of NASA budget going to just one of their projects. That makes it 200 times larger (as NASA's budget is .5% of the governmental budget).
        • Or mangled one: "pocket change".

          I am FROSTY PISS, I break the rules.

          Mixed idiums? NO PROBLEM!

          I'm on the cutting ledge.

          Follow me and be cool.

          Thank very much, email me and I'll tell you where to send the beer and weed.

          =/= Frosty P.

  • Pardon me sir ... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    "Pardon me sir, but it's a BIG ASS sky"!

    The sad fact of meteor discovery, is that there is a threshold on size that we will not be able to identify. We knew the 150ft meteor, DA14, was going to pass within 17K+ miles of Earth because of a previous swing. The meteor that came in over Russia came out of no where. At 7000 tons, it was a pretty damn small object considering the damage it caused.

    There's no easy answer solution to the 'meteor problem'. Would scanning spherically, at Lagrange points make a differe

    • So far the objects which we missed have been mostly harmless. The longer we search, the more we find, and down to smaller sizes as well. So this situation will not go on for ever. In 50 years or so most objects above ten metres or so will have been catalogued and their trajectories modelled.

    • by khallow (566160)

      There's no easy answer solution to the 'meteor problem'.

      Do nothing. Seriously, that's the easy solution. Spending a relatively small amount of money to catalog asteroids down to a certain size has some value beyond that default strategy.

      It does nothing in the event that we find one on an impact trajectory.

      Being able to predict a significant disaster even mere hours ahead of time doesn't have value? You can call off nuclear wars or preposition disaster relief supplies and teams ahead of time, even if you can't evacuate many people.

      • Even if you can only say "Put an adhesive-tape X across the windows to attempt to mitigate the shards of flying glass, and do stay away from the windows during the 2:30p-2:40p time frame", that's quite helpful.
        • by Max_W (812974)
          Why not invest into research on more resilient buildings in the first place? It is not only meteors, but also hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes.

          Say, include into the glass sort of nylon net by regulations and forget about millions of broken glass injuries every year.

          The same about walls. If falling stones hurt people regularly, by scores, perhaps, more graceful disintegration could be engineered as part of the original building design. But not pretend that a building is to stand forever.
          • Why not invest into research on more resilient buildings in the first place? It is not only meteors, but also hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes. Say, include into the glass sort of nylon net by regulations and forget about millions of broken glass injuries every year.

            That would cost way more than $5 million, or even $5 billion. It would just be harder to see the cost because it would be forced on to people building a new home or whatever (as if that industry needs more costs right now).

          • That's only likely to help with new construction.

            Duck & Cover warnings just need a way of informing the populace, not making everyone rebuild their homes on a proactive whim.

  • by trims (10010) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @10:12PM (#42932273) Homepage

    OK, first off, tracking such objects is a useful exercise, for many reasons, not just for the OMG, WE'RE GONNA GET HIT, crowd.

    Unfortunately, it's practically useless for the purpose it's being touted for. That is, to give short notice warning of an impending impact.

    Firstly, given the design criteria, we're looking at 48 hours notice, maximum, before an impact. Note that at the outer edge of this prediction envelope, it's a predicted impact - that is, one with a significant change of impact, but not a certainty of one. Now, hopefully, people would take this as seriously as we now do Tsunami Warnings. But think about it one more step:

    Secondly, the impact area simply can't be computed until relatively shortly before impact. That is, if we detect the incoming meteor 48 hours ahead of time, it will take a couple of hours to compute a rough impact zone (meaning, just which part of the GLOBE it will hit), and likely you won't have a decent small error probability zone (meaning, something less than 100 miles across) until 12 hours or less before impact.

    Does anyone think that a 12 hour warning of an impact can have any actual damage mitigation effect? Sure, if the area being hit has (a) a relatively low population, AND (b) a very good transportation system. But virtually all places on the Earth fail at one of those. There's simply no way to effectively evacuate even a mid-size city in time, and it's not like you can put everyone into blast shelters like the old Nuclear War scenarios wanted us to do.

    So, spend the money on ATLAS, and get ourselves some great astrometric data for future use. It just won't be any sort of useful in terms of damage avoidance.

    -Erik

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The data is also useful to decrease international tensions. Imagine a scenario where one or the other of the various nuclear equipped countries are being extra naughty and the tensions are high. It may well be worth a couple of million dollars to tell everyone "expect something that looks like, but isn't a nuclear airburst in the near future".

      Priceless.

      • by physburn (1095481)
        yes we were very lucky, that russian didn't mistake the meteor impact, for a us attack, that could have been world war three right there.
    • by khallow (566160)

      Does anyone think that a 12 hour warning of an impact can have any actual damage mitigation effect?

      Sure. As the other replier noted, you can prevent nuclear wars with that much advanced warning. 12 hours is also plenty of time to evacuate most places on the planet, if you're speaking of relatively small air bursts. And you can move a lot of supplies and disaster relief around in that time frame.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Does anyone think that a 12 hour warning of an impact can have any actual damage mitigation effect?

      Anyone with a clue. Twelve hours is more than adequate time to move away from breakable glass and furniture that might topple.

      This - like all mitigation efforts - isn't some binary LOLDAMAGE/LOLNODAMAGE nonsense. It's mitigation - reduction of damage.

    • by meglon (1001833) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @10:45PM (#42932419)
      Yes, and no. If we can track these things, we may have years, or even centuries, of data to pinpoint where they're going to hit. If we happen to find something that's not going to hit us in 48 hours, that doesn't mean we're simply going to ignore it... we're going to remember it, and the more we learn about it, the more we'll have an idea if it's going to hit in the future, and where.

      On the other side of that is, most of these objects won't need an evacuation. The one that came in over Russia didn't, but, the vast majority of those injuries could have been avoided if people would have known something was coming, and to stay away from their windows around a certain time of the day just to be safe. In that sense, those 12 hours of warning would have eliminated 95% or more of the injuries this one caused.
    • Secondly, the impact area simply can't be computed until relatively shortly before impact. That is, if we detect the incoming meteor 48 hours ahead of time, it will take a couple of hours to compute a rough impact zone (meaning, just which part of the GLOBE it will hit), and likely you won't have a decent small error probability zone (meaning, something less than 100 miles across) until 12 hours or less before impact.

      And even that's of limited use (at best), or completely useless (at worst). This weekend's

    • by codegen (103601)
      Most of the injuries in Russia were from flying glass because of the explosion. For the larger more dangerous asteroids, a longer detection is possible. For the smaller ones like the recent one in Russia, 12 hours warning to get everyone to stay away form glass might be reasonable.
    • by CaptnCrud (938493)

      You do realize that a 48-24 hour window is better then nothing (even for a multiple hiroshima level blast, you could have enough time to get out of the way via land vehicle...assuming your making some good miles). Also, information gathered is cumulative. It might be a near miss that may very well turn into a strike within the next few year(s)....how did this short sighted argument ever get modded insightful...

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      Most of the people hurt in the recent events in Russia were hit by falling glass. 12 hours warning is more than enough to put some tape on your windows and stay away from them.

      You also have to think of this as a step along the road to building something that can detect things further out. You don't start by flying to the moon, first you build some model rockets and build up to it.

  • by Dan East (318230) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @10:57PM (#42932461) Homepage Journal

    This doesn't exactly fit the topic, but I don't know of a good place to even ask this question. At one time the official advice was to open windows during a tornado, so that pressure inside the building could equalize with the atmosphere, thus reducing destruction. I think that advice has been thrown out, because if a tornado does hit your house it's toast, and at least having your windows closed gives a little protection from flying debris and hail.

    However, the opening windows advice does sound good for massive shock waves, like from a meteor. If you'll notice in the videos showing windows in apartment buildings blowing out, it was pretty evenly distributed across the building. It might have affected 1 in 5 windows or so, which to me appears to have been the necessary amount to equalize pressure in the building. My point is if if that number of windows had been opened on purpose, then I bet none would have had to have blown out.

    Anyone know anything specific about this kind of thing?

    • by tqk (413719)

      ... and at least having your windows closed gives a little protection from flying debris and hail.

      No. Ground zero in a hurricane is going to be swarming with flying cars, trees, bricks, two-by-fours, & etc. Glass shards would be the least of your worries. Just stay away from any openings and hope the building stays where it is, preferably in as few pieces possible.

  • .. is that the more damage done by near earth objects, the more we'll spend trying to save ourselves from them.

    Is it just me or does that seem like the wrong way of approaching this issue?
  • I have a feeling NORAD knew about that meteoroid before the Russians saw it become a meteor and finally plunged into the lake and turned into a meteorite. I would also go so far as to say the Russian Military saw it coming in as well. The cold war may be "over", but both nations are nervous about North Korean and Iran and I would gather that they have been and will continue to closely monitor their own airspace for quite some time.

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