Despite the fact that we’ve mined a few blockbusters from the idea (and the fact that it certainly contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs), Earth’s early asteroid detection system is still woefully inadequate. But if things go as planned, this new joint NASA program could get us a whole lot closer.
Dubbed Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), the program is an initiative being developed by the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA. The goal is to provide advance warning for dangerous asteroid and meteorites, with the warning cushion indicative based on the potential for damage. Ultimately, ATLAS aims to provide a one-day warning in the event of a potential 30-kiloton "town killer" asteroid strike, a week's warning for a 5-megaton "city killer," and three weeks' notice for a potential 100-megaton "county killer" impact.
As Space notes, a test of the ATLAS1 telescope was held in late March, with team members noting they have “first light” in the initiative. The next phase of the project aims to install a total of three DFM Engineering-completed ATLAS telescopes, with two in Hawaii and another in South Africa.
So, what sets this project apart? ATLAS hopes to keep a better lock on potentially dangerous space rocks by constantly scanning the entire sky each night, looking for movement that could indicate a dangerous asteroid. It’ll then compare all that data immediately and look for any changes between shots.
Hey, it might not give us enough warning to mount an Armageddon-style mission with Bruce Willis, but we could at least have a heads-up that fiery carnage is coming.