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Killer Asteroids Are Hiding in Plain Sight. A New Tool Helps Spot Them

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A visualization of trajectories of asteroids, in green, discovered by scientists using an algorithm that studies astronomical images; Earth is in the foreground.

Credit: B612 Asteroid Institute/University of Washington DiRAC Institute/OpenSpace Project

Ed Lu wants to save Earth from killer asteroids.

Or at least, if there is a big space rock streaking our way, Dr. Lu, a former NASA astronaut with a doctorate in applied physics, wants to find it before it hits us — hopefully with years of advance warning and a chance for humanity to deflect it.

On Tuesday, B612 Foundation, a nonprofit group that Dr. Lu helped found, announced the discovery of more than 100 asteroids. (The foundation's name is a nod to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's children's book, "The Little Prince"; B612 is the home asteroid of the main character.)

That by itself is unremarkable. New asteroids are reported all the time by skywatchers around the world. That includes amateurs with backyard telescopes and robotic surveys systematically scanning the night skies.

What is remarkable is that B612 did not build a new telescope or even make new observations with existing telescopes. Instead, researchers financed by B612 applied cutting-edge computational might to years-old images — 412,000 of them in the digital archives at the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, or NOIRLab — to sift asteroids out of the 68 billion dots of cosmic light captured in the images.

From The New York Times
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