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Space Government The Almighty Buck Politics

ATLAS Meteor Tracking System Gets $5M NASA Funding 104

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 relikx ( 1266746 ) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @09:40PM (#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.
  • Re:"Huge"?? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @09:53PM (#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.

  • Peanuts? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Sunday February 17, 2013 @10:13PM (#42932041)

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

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 17, 2013 @10:40PM (#42932167)

    "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 difference? No doubt more money will have 'some' impact, but this is a probing measure only. It does nothing in the event that we find one on an impact trajectory. I guess, one thing at a time, right?

  • Re:Peanuts? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @11:06PM (#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).


    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.


  • by trims ( 10010 ) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @11:12PM (#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.


  • by meglon ( 1001833 ) on Sunday February 17, 2013 @11:45PM (#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.

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