Asteroid Warning System To Watch For Next 2012 DA14

By Jordan Mammo email: , Feb 18, 2013 11:16 AM EST

Last week's meteorite explosion over Russia injured more than 1,000 people, sparking an international debate over how to best protect the Earth when asteroids and other potentially damaging objects are likely to make impact with the planet.

With that in mind, NASA announced it is spending $5 million to fund an asteroid detection system that would identify objects set to collide with the Earth before they enter the planet's atmosphere.

The ATLAS program — Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System — will be developed by the University of Hawaii's team of astronomers. The goal is to construct a system capable of scanning the sky twice every night for objects moving through space.

Once astronomers pick up asteroids 50 yards in diameter (dubbed a "city killer") on a crash-course with Earth, ATLAS hopes to provide a one- week warning to residents of the affected areas; for asteroids spanning 150 yards (a "county killer"), a three-week warning will be aired in order to give cities as much time as possible to organize an evacuation.

"That's enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure, and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts," said astronomer John Tonry in a press release.

If everything goes according to plan, the alert system should be functional by 2015.

ATLAS will be composed of eight separate telescopes, each outfitted with a 100-megapixel camera, mounted on one or two different locations in the Hawaiian islands.

The Institute for Astronomy has its own asteroid detection program called "Pan-STARRS," but since that system is intended to search for asteroids capable of severely damaging the Earth in its entirety, ATLAS will be considered more of a complement, searching the near-Earth skies for meteors and any objects that enter the planet's atmosphere more frequently.

After the meteorite explosion over the Ural Mountains in Russia, that country's deputy prime minister suggested countries around the world work together to develop technology capable of shooting down meteors and asteroids as they zoom towards Earth. Experts, however, are divided over whether or not such a system would work. Even if humans were able to strike an asteroid before it hit the ground, chances are that the rock would simply break up into more numerous pieces still headed in the same direction at the same speed.

Detection and evacuation may be the best options currently available.

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