The search for Near Earth Objects - why dark skies are critically important

Impact of Earth by asteroids is perhaps the only natural disaster that can be prevented. If an asteroid that will impact Earth can be identified sufficiently early, it is possible to modify its orbit to eliminate the impact. As a consequence, a major effort is presently underway to identify Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that may present a threat to Earth. The impact of a 20-meter diameter object near Chelyabinsk, Russia, provided a spectacular reminder of the threat that these objects present. Although no deaths were caused, injuries and a large amount of property damage were caused.

The search for NEOs is mostly funded by NASA. The principal search telescopes are the Pan-STARRS telescopes, located on Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, and the Catalina Sky Survey, located near Tucson, Arizona. Both of these locations are seriously threatened by light pollution. A new survey, ATLAS, will commence shortly, with one telescope located on Haleakala, Maui, and the other telescope located on Mauna Loa, Hawaii (which is less threatened). Artificial light (i.e., light pollution) at these observing sites raises the sky background, and makes faint objects harder or impossible to see.

Searches for Near Earth Objects typically use very broad passbands in order to obtain the maximum amount of light. These passbands typically stretch from 400 to 820 nm. As such, they are very vulnerable to the changes in lighting that are occurring across the globe, with widespread introduction of blue-rich white lighting. It is critically important in all of these locations to limit the amount of blue light that is so readily scattered by the atmosphere.

A network of followup telescopes, spread across the planet, play a crucial role in the discovery of NEOs. After a new NEO is identified by the survey telescopes such as Pan-STARRS and Catalina, additional observations must be secured to establish its orbit, and in order to determine whether it poses a threat to Earth. The majority of these followup telescopes are at locations that are impacted by light pollution, and this seriously impacts their ability to secure additional observations.

Richard Wainscoat

AUTHORS/INSTITUTIONS: R. Wainscoat, Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, UNITED STATES


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