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Existential Crisis Averted

I'm fairly convinced that every astronomer experiences at least one period of existential crisis at some point in her/his career. After all, astronomy is a luxurious pursuit of knowledge only afforded to the wealthiest of societies. It doesn't build bridges or clean up oil spills. So isn't there a more worthwhile use of my intelligence and schooling? a burgeoning astronomer might rightly ask. Shouldn't I be teaching kids in Haiti?

Well, maybe we should. But if we did, who would come up with the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS)? And for that matter, who would come up with our snappy acronyms?

Who? John Tonry, that's who. John popped up on astro-ph to remind us that astronomers are, in fact, capable of useful endeavors:
Earth is bombarded by meteors, occasionally by one large enough to cause a significant explosion and possible loss of life. Although the odds of a deadly asteroid strike in the next century are low, the most likely impact is by a relatively small asteroid, and we suggest that the best mitigation strategy in the near term is simply to move people out of the way. We describe an "early warning" system that could provide a week's notice of most sizable asteroids or comets on track to hit the Earth. This system, dubbed "Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System" (ATLAS), comprises two observatories separated by about 100km that simultaneously scan the visible sky twice a night, and can be implemented immediately for relatively low cost. The sensitivity of ATLAS permits detection of 140m asteroids (100 Mton impact energy) three weeks before impact, and 50m asteroids a week before arrival. An ATLAS alarm, augmented by other observations, should result in a determination of impact location and time that is accurate to a few kilometers and a few seconds.
Of course, in addition to being altruistic, he is also an astronomer. So his abstract goes on to say

In addition to detecting and warning of approaching asteroids, ATLAS will continuously monitor the changing universe around us: most of the variable stars in our galaxy, many micro-lensing events from stellar alignments, luminous stars and novae in nearby galaxies, thousands of supernovae, nearly a million quasars and active galactic nuclei, tens of millions of galaxies, and a billion stars. With two views per day ATLAS will make the variable universe as familiar to us as the sunrise and sunset.
Either way, protecting Earth from asteroid impacts or providing a view of the variable universe, this is a really important concept.

Oh, and I used to work in the office right next to Prof. Tonry, albeit doing less useful things...


blissful_e said…
Snappy acronyms are key!! :)

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