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New algorithm spots its first "potentially hazardous" near-Earth asteroid — and it's 600 feet long

Bullseye! How DART hit an asteroid 7 million miles away
Bullseye! How DART hit an asteroid 7 million miles away 05:09

An algorithm designed to discover near-Earth asteroids has identified its first "potentially hazardous asteroid," researchers from the University of Washington said in a statement

The algorithm, known as HelioLinc3D and developed in part by researchers from the University of Washington, is still in its testing phase. The "potentially hazardous" asteroid, named 2022 SF289, was 600 feet long and was discovered during a test of the algorithm in Hawaii. Scientists were able to confirm that the asteroid "poses no risk to Earth for the foreseeable future." 

The algorithm will eventually be used at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, a survey telescope being built in Chile. The observatory will have multiple goals, including probing dark energy and dark matter and mapping the Milky Way, and is expected to begin operating in early 2025, according to the university's release. It's expected that the observatory will "dramatically increase the discovery rate" of items like asteroids. The observatory will only need to look at spots in the night sky twice per night, instead of the four times needed for telescopes, an advancement that means it can "scan the sky unprecedentedly quickly." 

However, this new speed meant researchers needed to create a new type of discovery algorithm. That's where HelioLinc3D comes in. The algorithm can find asteroids in Rubin's dataset, and developers of the algorithm have had it study existing data with too few observations to be usable by conventional algorithms. It was in one of those data sets that the algorithm discovered the "potentially hazardous" asteroid 2022 SF289. The asteroid had been observed multiple times on different nights by older technology, but because it had never been seen four times in one night, it could not be properly identified. By combining the multiple observations, the algorithm made the discovery. 

Additional observations confirmed the discovery and found that the asteroid's closest approach brings it within 140,000 miles of Earth's orbit, placing it closer than the moon. 

"This is just a small taste of what to expect with the Rubin Observatory in less than two years, when HelioLinc3D will be discovering an object like this every night," said Rubin scientist Mario Jurić, director of the DiRAC Institute, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington and leader of the team behind HelioLinc3D.  "But more broadly, it's a preview of the coming era of data-intensive astronomy. From HelioLinc3D to AI-assisted codes, the next decade of discovery will be a story of advancement in algorithms as much as in new, large, telescopes."

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