Developing Early Warning Systems for Killer Asteroids

While the government dithers, privately funded projects are stepping up the search for looming disaster.

If I were about to be struck by lightning, I’d want to know. If an earthquake were going to shake my house tomorrow, or in 10 years, I sure would appreciate an early warning. 

Residents of Chelyabinsk, Siberia, likely felt that way last Feb. 15, when a roughly 15-meter-wide meteor exploded above the Ural Mountains, shattering windows across about 200,000 square meters. More than a thousand people were injured, mostly from glass cuts. 

Dashboard-camera video of the white-hot rock streaking through the sky, replayed repeatedly on TV and online, boldly illustrated the threat asteroids pose. The footage also highlighted how little we’ve done about it. Just a few hours of advance notice would have made a huge difference in Chelyabinsk, but no observatory on Earth (or beyond) is capable of such a feat — even though the necessary technology is readily available. 

John Tonry, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, is working furiously to implement that technology with the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, or ATLAS. When complete in 2015, the system will be sensitive enough to spot Chelyabinsk-scale asteroids about 24 hours before they strike. For larger objects, the kind that can lead to mass casualties, ATLAS could provide warning of up to a month. 

The budget is just $5 million. “The cost of funding ATLAS is essentially one week of a typical space-mission development,” as Tonry puts it. Yet he and his supporters had to work hard to get even that much.

The struggle to build ATLAS is part of a broader disconnect between the bold talk and the mild action regarding asteroids. The United States has spent less on asteroid detection over the past 15 years than the production budget of the 1998 asteroid movie Armageddon.