A new artificial intelligence (AI) tool has detected a space rock that could potentially threaten Earth.
A Historic First for AI in Astronomy
For the first time ever, an AI algorithm, HelioLinc3D, has identified a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA). Named 2022 SF289, the rock spans approximately 600 feet in width and is projected to pass within 140,000 miles of Earth—closer than the moon.
How AI Changes the Game In Finding Asteroids
The HelioLinc3D algorithm was designed to assist the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will soon commence a decade-long examination of the night sky. Its purpose is to detect space rocks that could possibly intersect Earth’s orbit. Ari Heinze, a Vera C. Rubin researcher, emphasized the importance of this discovery, remarking that it improves global safety by validating the software’s efficacy.
The Vast Universe of Space Rocks
There are tens of millions of space rocks in our solar system. Some are tiny, while others rival the moon’s size. Although many reside far from Earth, certain asteroids follow orbits bringing them uncomfortably close. Known as near-Earth objects (NEOs), these space rocks can receive the PHA label if they approach within approximately 5 million miles. Nevertheless, no currently identified PHA is expected to collide with Earth in the upcoming century. Astronomers diligently monitor these asteroids to confirm their trajectories remain collision-free.
HelioLinc3D’s Efficiency Shines
When matched with data from the ATLAS survey in Hawaii, HelioLinc3D demonstrated its prowess. While current asteroid-detection methods demand multiple observations, this innovative algorithm can discern an asteroid from just two. Such an efficient system means faster detection of potential threats.
With around 2,350 known PHAs and likely many more undiscovered, astronomers are keen on utilizing more efficient tools like HelioLinc3D. Experts estimate that the Vera Rubin Observatory, equipped with its state-of-the-art 3,200-megapixel camera, might uncover up to 3,000 previously unidentified PHAs.
Testing the Algorithm’s Capabilities
Prior to the Rubin Observatory’s completion, HelioLinc3D’s creators desired a trial. Using previously collected ATLAS data, the algorithm managed to spot the 2022 SF289 asteroid, missed by other systems. The ATLAS had observed this asteroid on multiple nights, but never four times in one evening, resulting in its previous oversight.
“HelioLinc3D showcases our ability to detect faint objects visible across several nights,” said lead ATLAS astronomer Larry Denneau. This algorithm essentially provides the advantage of a “bigger, better telescope.”
An Exciting Future for Astronomy
With advancements like HelioLinc3D, Mario Jurić, a Rubin scientist, anticipates daily asteroid discoveries soon. He predicts the next decade in astronomy will not just be about powerful telescopes but also about innovative algorithms.
This landmark discovery was officially announced in the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Electronic Circular MPEC 2023-O26.