New tracking technology to spot smaller asteroid threats

Shao Tracking Earth Asteroids

The dream of detecting every potentially dangerous near Earth asteroid could be a step closer to reality, thanks to a new technique called synthetic tracking.

A report in the Astrophysical Journal, claims the system, which combines high-speed computers and low-noise cameras, has the potential to find every near Earth object down to 10 metres in size.

Currently, only a tiny fraction, possibly as little as two per cent of the estimated quarter of a million small asteroids near Earth have been found, according to the study's lead author Dr Michael Shao of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

"Only a very small fraction of those asteroids are detectable with current techniques," says Shao.

Small dark asteroids in the 10-metre range are only discovered when they're very close to the Earth.

"When they're that close, they appear to be moving very fast, making them hard to track," says Shao.

"We think we have a new mouse trap that can detect all of them. If they fall into our field of view we will find them."

The synthetic tracking system developed by Shao and colleagues uses a 5 mega-pixel camera that can snap a hundred images a second with a very low noise-to-picture ratio.

The camera is matched with graphic processing units capable of computational rates of four teraflops (trillion operations per second), allowing a huge amount of data to be processed in real time.

The software acts as an artificial tracking system, combining data from different pixels as an object moves across the camera's line of sight.

"It lets us detect and track asteroids which would normally be too faint to see," says Shao ( via ).

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