MIT program makes asteroids easier to detect

Asteroids traveling near Earth are easier to detect, thanks to a new MIT program that is receiving worldwide recognition as a leader in asteroid discovery.

"Since initiating search operations in March 1998, the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program has discovered an average of 11 near-Earth asteroids each month," said Dr. Grant H. Stokes of MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which operates LINEAR on behalf of the US Air Force. Dr. Stokes presented a paper on LINEAR results on October 13 at the American Astronomical Society's Planetary Sciences Conference in Madison, WI.

He emphasized that "none of the currently known asteroids is a threat to the Earth in our lifetime." Further search will be necessary to determine if any unknown objects exist that could pose a risk.

Eighteen of the asteroids found by LINEAR (sponsored by the US Air Force) have been classified by the Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory as potentially hazardous because of their size and potential to pass close to the Earth. On August 25, 1998, LINEAR discovered asteroid 1998QS52, the brightest and probably largest potentially hazardous asteroid known. Again, none of the known potentially hazardous objects is a short-term threat to Earth.

In addition to discovering numerous near-Earth asteroids -- as many as five have been found in a single night -- LINEAR has also found nine comets and an additional 10,500 asteroids in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. "The discovery rates demonstrated since March significantly exceed those of other existing asteroid search efforts," Dr. Stokes said.

LINEAR uses a search technology initially developed for tracking Earth-orbiting satellites. The key component of the system is a detector array of highly sensitive charge-coupled devices (CCDs) developed at Lincoln Lab. The CCD detector and associated advanced processing electronics efficiently detect moving objects in space. The LINEAR system operates using a 1-meter space-surveillance telescope located at Lincoln Lab's Experimental Test Site near Socorro, NM.

Dr. Stokes' co-authors on the LINEAR paper are Lincoln Lab staff members Herbert E.M. Viggh, Frank C. Shelly and J. Scott Stuart, as well as Matthew S. Blythe of Manpower, Inc.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 28, 1998.

Topics: Space, astronomy and planetary science

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