Astro-technologist, John Tonry, with nearly-complete ATLAS 1 telescope at Colorado-based DFM Engineering in late March. Credit: ATLAS Project

Astro-technologist, John Tonry, with nearly-complete ATLAS 1 telescope at Colorado-based DFM Engineering in late March.
Credit: ATLAS Project

New progress has been reported on the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, or ATLAS.

The ATLAS effort is dedicated to providing one day’s warning for a 30-kiloton “town killer,” a week for a 5-megaton “city killer,” and three weeks for a 100-megaton “county killer.”

ATLAS is an asteroid impact early warning system being developed by the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA.

“We have First Light,” according to an ATLAS team update. In a Colorado-based test at the end of March, the Acam1 camera and ATLAS 1 telescope were tested at DFM Engineering, Inc. in Longmont, Colorado.

A view down the throat of the DFM telescope with the ATLAS camera mounted on the spider ring. The magenta area is the reflection off of the interference visual filter in front of the ATLAS detector and the primary mirror. Credit: ATLAS Project

A view down the throat of the DFM telescope with the ATLAS camera mounted on the spider ring. The magenta area is the reflection off of the interference visual filter in front of the ATLAS detector and the primary mirror.
Credit: ATLAS Project

ATLAS sites

The ATLAS project is led by John Tonry of the Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Hawaii, with the work funded by a 5-year NASA grant that began January 1 2013.

The ATLAS project’s Haleakala and Mauna Loa sites are complete and ready for the installation of the DFM Engineering-completed ATLAS telescopes. Each site has a fully certified 16.5’ Ash dome, concrete pier, loft, storage, computers and essential electronics. Full robotic operation of both telescopes, including automatic reporting to the Minor Planet Center by early 2016 is the plan.

Telescope construction is progressing steadily with ATLAS officials expecting delivery and installation of ATLAS 1 on Haleakala at the end of April and ATLAS 2 somewhat later.

In addition, there are ongoing discussions with NASA about a third ATLAS telescope in South Africa, which could prove an excellent location for early detection of dangerous asteroids.

ATLAS project logo. Credit: ATLAS Project

ATLAS project logo.
Credit: ATLAS Project

Moving objects

When ATLAS is completed at year’s end, it will consist of two telescopes 100 miles apart that will automatically scan the whole sky several times every night looking for moving objects.

The key to detecting asteroids is that they continuously move against the more or less fixed background of stars and galaxies: a typical asteroid moves something like 30 seconds of arc an hour. ATLAS will therefore record pairs of images of each part of the sky, with exposures separated by about 30 minutes.

The computer system for ATLAS is capable of analyzing 500Mbytes of data per minute, capable of making a detailed comparison of the two images immediately after the second one is taken.

The computer will then compile a list of all objects that appear to have changed either their positions in the sky or their brightness. The next step is working out which of these objects is likely to be an asteroid moving across the sky, and which may be some other celestial phenomenon.

Science agenda

ATLAS will be capable of conducting an array of science pursuits, beyond searching for dangerous asteroids, such as:

•Search for habitable planets outside our Solar System

•Search for mini-moons that orbit Earth

•Look for denizens of the outer Solar System, such as dwarf planets like Pluto or Eris or a Nemesis star

Also on the ATLAS “can do” list is the ability to track space junk.

ATLAS can see a 10 cm-diameter (about 4 inches) object in low Earth orbit and detect objects of about 60 cm-diameter (about 2 feet) in geostationary Earth orbit. Because ATLAS watches how things move, it can quickly distinguish Earth-orbiting space junk from asteroids that orbit the Sun.

For an informative set of videos on the ATLAS, go to:

http://www.fallingstar.com/videolist.php

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