108 years ago today, an asteroid exploded above Tunguska, Siberia. The asteroid—at just a few hundred feet wide—demolished an area of 800 square miles and released as much destructive force as 100 tons of TNT. It was the largest asteroid impact in recent history, and for many scientists, a warning of the devastating potential a rogue asteroid could have if it collides with the Earth, Eleanor Imster writes for EarthSky.org.
Today, to celebrate the second annual Asteroid Day, the Las Cumbres Observatory is inviting anyone with an email address to help astronomers track a pair of near-Earth asteroids in hopes of learning more about these space rocks.
Traditional observatories require people to be present to operate, but the Las Cumbres Observatory is a network of 18 robotic telescopes that are located at different points around the planet. While that allows astronomers everywhere to check in on distant objects in space, tracking asteroids can be tricky even for the most advanced automated telescopes.
“Taking images of asteroids can be an involved process because they are moving through space,” Edward Gomez, educational director at Las Cumbres Observatory, says in a statement. “We wanted to simplify this process, making it into a single click that triggers a request for images on Las Cumbres Observatory.”
By submitting an email address to the observatory’s Asteroid Tracker, members of the public can schedule an image request from the telescope network in their name. Once the images are taken, they will be stitched into a compilation of photos to create a video tracking one of two particular asteroids chosen for the project.
“We chose [two] asteroids which we wanted to study further, that would be passing close to Earth around Asteroid Day,” Sarah Greenstreet, a post-doctoral fellow on the observatory’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) team, says in a statement. “By combining observations made by the public with some of our own we hope to learn about how fast they are rotating and what their surface is made from.”
The two asteroids are 2002 KL6 and 2010 NY65. Both space rocks once made their homes in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but were knocked out of their original orbits and into new paths that take them close to Earth. While neither asteroid poses an immediate threat to the planet, they can provide scientists with valuable insight into how some near-Earth asteroids behave, as well as data that helps to keep an eye on them in the future.
Future asteroid impacts might seem like the premise for a sci-fi disaster movie, but it is a real concern. While astronomers can keep tabs on some of the larger NEOs that drift in and around our planet’s orbits, the smaller ones can easily escape the gaze of even the most observant telescopes. Just recently, astronomers discovered that a tiny asteroid has been zipping around Earth for at least a century, but at just a few hundred feet wide it had slipped in under astronomers’ noses. Though it is about the estimated size of the asteroid that caused the Tunguska Event, this celestial buddy doesn't pose a threat.
Asteroid day is a chance for the public to learn about asteroids, which are thought to be an early stage of Earth's formation, billions of years ago.
“Our goal is to dedicate one day each year to learn about asteroids, the origins of our universe, and to support the resources necessary to see, track and deflect dangerous asteroids from Earth’s orbital path,” says Asteroid Day co-founder, astrophysicist, and former Queen guitarist Brian May in a statement. “Asteroids are a natural disaster we know how to prevent.”
So warm up those computers and get clicking to watch the pair of asteroids make their trek across the sky.