Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/05/15/usaf_asteroid_watch/

USAF raygun boffins clocking planet-buster asteroid threats

Really, Really Distant Early Warning line in Hawaii

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 15th May 2009 11:48 GMT

US airforce raygun boffins have awarded a further $7m in funding to a project which detects and tracks asteroids which could hit Earth and kill us all.

Defense Industry Daily reports that the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) project, run by the US Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate and the University of Hawaii, has been funded for another year.

According to DID, quoting official spokesmen, it isn't an air force mission as such to protect the Earth from asteroid strike. However the US Congress has said that American government organisations should make an effort to help locate and catalogue all space objects larger than 1 kilometre in size which might hit the planet, and that seems to have been enough to keep the PanSTARRS effort going. Kilometre-plus asteroids are hefty enough that such an impact might seriously threaten human civilisation, or even (in the case of really large asteroids) humanity's existence.

Astronomers at Hawaii Uni say that:

Pan-STARRS should quickly help finish off the Congressional mandate [and] will be able to push the detection limit for a complete (99%) sample down to objects as small as 300-meters in diameter. Such objects, while not capable of wiping out life on Earth, would cause considerable local and/or regional damage should one collide with our planet.

Even once all the Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and ordinary asteroid-belt boulders of planetbusting size have been nailed down, humanity can't quite relax. There might be Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), or comets, with tremendously long orbital periods - perhaps only plunging into the inner system to menace Earth every century or so.

But clocking all the nearer and more visible stuff would certainly eliminate a big portion of the risk, so we can all be grateful to the USAF raygun boffins and their Hawaiian telescope project. ®