NASA's asteroid orbit calculator spots a hot rock zipping past

'Scout' scope gives us an asteroid-misses-Earth-by-not-much horror story for Halloween

NASA's pleased with its still-under-development asteroid-hunting program after it spotted a 25-metre rock that buzzed Earth at about 1.3 times the distance to the moon on the weekend.

Observatories like the ten-year-old PAN-STARRS at Maui in Hawaii scan the skies looking for uncatalogued little dots that might or might not be incoming rocks, but that's not enough to give the world a yes-or-no.

To fill the gap between spot-the-dot and placing the call to Bruce Willis we need an orbital calculation and, according to this weekend report from NPR, that's the Scout software system's role.

Paul Chodas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory told NPR the software is being written to speed up the “confirmation process” with a short-term forecast of an asteroid's trajectory.

In the case of 2016 UR36 – orbital data at the Minor Planet Center – Scout had its estimate within about 10 minutes of the PAN-STARRS observation.

Follow-up observations by Spacewatch, Steward Observatory, and Tenagra Observatories provided an estimate of 2016 UR36's size – up to 25 metres – and confirmed the Scout prediction that it would miss Earth comfortably.

Cutting the gap between first observation and orbital estimate won't make much difference if the incoming is a planet-killer, because we don't yet have a response - but when we do know how to handle an asteroid, having five days' notice instead of none will be important.

Scout is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year. ®


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