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Los Alamos National Laboratory Research Quarterly, Fall 2002
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Detecting "Killer" Asteroids

RAPTOR’s stereo view of last year’s near-Earth “killer” asteroid.

(left) RAPTOR's stereo view of last year's near-Earth "killer" asteroid.

In addition to being able to find transient optical events, RAPTOR can detect "killer" asteroids, like the one that probably wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. RAPTOR's stereovision permits parallax measurements that can detect such asteroids as far away as the moon.

Measuring an asteroid's parallax has an advantage over the current detection method, which looks for the streak an asteroid leaves in a time exposure of the night sky. An asteroid that leaves a streak has a component of motion perpendicular to a straight line drawn from Earth to the asteroid. But the asteroids of most concern are headed straight for Earth and thus leave no streaks. Fortunately, a parallax measurement can easily detect such objects.

Early last year, astronomers calculated that an asteroid would come within 100,000 kilometers of Earth later in the year. Using information provided by the astronomers, RAPTOR took the first-ever stereo views of an asteroid (see photos below). The asteroid's parallax is obvious, as is its streak—which proved the asteroid would miss Earth.

Although a killer asteroid detected as far away as the moon would strike Earth in 8 hours, such advanced warning would give some time to start evacuating people from the coasts, where the impact-induced tsunami would pose the greatest threat to populated areas. (Since three-fourths of Earth's surface is covered by ocean, an ocean impact is the most likely scenario.) Replacing RAPTOR's current telescopes with an array of 1-meter telescopes, however, would enable RAPTOR to provide advanced warning of a week or more.

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