Cloud Computing Makes Waves with a Privately Funded Asteroid Spotter

Tom Keane
4 min readAug 28, 2022

Asteroids are no joke. If they hit the earth, they can do extensive damage. A smaller asteroid would have enough energy to flatten buildings a half mile from where it hit. A larger asteroid could wipe out almost everything on earth.

Although the likelihood of an asteroid hitting the earth is low, it can happen, and it has before. That’s why NASA has an Asteroid watch that tracks asteroids scientists think will get close to Earth.

Now the Asteroid Institute has started a new project that follows an innovative algorithm called THOR (Tracklet-less Heliocentric Orbit Recovery). It uses cloud computing power to compare points of light in the night sky and matches them to determine an asteroid’s path through the solar system. The system has already been successful in discovering 104 asteroids.

This article will further discuss the new development and the issues it addresses.

The Asteroid Institute vs. NASA

NASA and other organizations have been using technology to track asteroids for years. But they face challenges in parsing images with thousands of asteroids in them.

Many of the telescopes they use are unable to take multiple images of the same region on the same night. This makes it difficult to determine if the same asteroid is appearing in multiple photos taken at different times.

THOR stands out because it can identify the asteroids that are appearing in various images taken at different times. This allows the technology to figure out the asteroid’s trajectory and how it’s moving toward Earth.

In addition to providing more accurate asteroid tracking, it also shows the importance of computers in astrology which is a cheap, powerful, and versatile resource.

Astronomers typically use a tracklet to search for asteroids. This technique utilizes multiple images taken within an hour. Researchers attempt to establish a pattern that determines the asteroid’s route. But if the data is incomplete due to obstructions, etc., they will not be able to figure out its trajectory.

THOR converts astronomical data into a data set that includes billions of images taken over several years, ensuring the information provided is complete.

The THOR-Cloud Computing Connection

THOR also differs from other asteroid tracking technologies in that it runs on ADAM, the Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping platform. It uses Google Cloud, which provides cloud computing and storage. The platform will eventually grow to include additional algorithms and data sets.

A Privately Funded Project

While THOR offers services to many of the same customers NASA caters to and uses government-funded telescopes for image collection, it is not a government-funded project. It is funded by thousands of private donors.

Asteroid Institute is a program launched by the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the planet from asteroids. Its goal is to build tools and technologies to detect and deflect asteroids to keep the earth safe.

Issues with the Asteroid Institute Effort

Although the THOR technology is effective in tracking numerous asteroids on trajectory towards earth, it comes with its share of challenges.

For one, many of its images date back a few years and have not been reobserved. This means their trajectories have been lost. However, they could be picked up in newer images moving forward.

Another issue is that their early images come from asteroid orbits circling Jupiter and Mars overlooking the more dangerous asteroids circling earth that NASA researchers are focusing on. The team is currently working on upgrading the algorithm, so it tracks asteroids throughout the solar system including those close to earth.

Researchers backing both NASA and THOR technologies are looking at THOR as a complement to other asteroid tracking approaches rather than the main technique. NASA feels that the Asteroid Institute’s attempts to map small objects in the solar system is beneficial but it’s nothing new. The agency has been performing similar tasks for years.

In 2005, Congress assigned NASA the task of finding at least 90% of asteroids in the solar system 140 meters in diameter and larger. So far, the agency has found only 40% of those objects. Once located, their trajectories are recorded in a massive data base.

If they discern that one of those asteroids are headed for earth, they will come up with a ‘planetary defense’ plan to deflect its trajectory.

The agency is currently coming up with a DART deflection tests later this year. It is also funding a concept that would send a rocket to shoot explosives into the asteroid to stop it in its tracks.

Other researchers, including those working with the Asteroid Institute, are studying other technologies like a gravitational tractor which would tug the asteroid into a slightly different orbit.

The Asteroid Institute will also soon have access to an 8.4-meter telescope with a 3200-megapixel camera being built in northern Chile. They are hoping to be able to utilize it by late next year to improve data collection efficiency.

Meanwhile, NASA will be getting a boost from an infrared space telescope from the Near-Earth Orbit Surveyor predicted to launch in 2026.

Conclusion

The new technology coming out to spot asteroids may save the earth. While tried and true methods continue to be employed, cloud computing has launched THOR, a new system that provides increased tracking capabilities and a more efficient system. While its currently being used for complementary means due to limitations, there’s no saying how it will improve asteroid tracking as it continues to develop.

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Tom Keane

21-year Microsoft Developer and Manager | Seattle, Washington