UH telescope could help predict where asteroids will impact Earth

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A University of Hawaii telescope just played an integral role in pinpointing a harmless asteroid that exploded above Africa last month, successfully carrying out a process that could, someday, help save lives.

The university's Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System, or ATLAS, telescope took images of the asteroid, called "2018 LA" before it entered Earth's atmosphere on June 2. This helped an international team of scientists determine its final destination.

"Prior to the ATLAS measurement, impact predictions showed 2018 LA hitting the Earth anywhere from Madagascar to the South Pacific—a range spanning almost half Earth's southern hemisphere." UH said in a news release.

But when ATLAS photographed the asteroid five hours before it exploded, it greatly improved the accuracy of those predictions. This helped to prove that a bright meteor later seen over Botswana was, in fact, 2018 LA.

A security video shows 2018 LA exploding over Botswana on June 2. (Video: Barend Swanepoel and Vicus Van Zyl)

UH says the event was especially satisfying because scientists didn't point ATLAS toward the asteroid that night, the telescope found 2018 LA all by itself, which is what is was designed to do.

"This is a great test of the system," ATLAS Principal Investigator Larry Denneau said in a news release. "We've confirmed that ATLAS can find impactors. If 2018 LA had been big enough to cause a dangerous explosion, like the asteroid that hit Russia in 2013, we'd have had enough warning that people could evacuate the impact zone."

UH says ATLAS currently discovers about 100 asteroids bigger than 30 meters every year.

"Were it to hit Earth, an asteroid that size would impact with enough energy to destroy a city like Honolulu. For the first time in history, astronomers can provide sufficient warning to move people away from the impact site," the news release said.

ATLAS is made up of two telescopes, one at Haleakala on Maui, the other at Mauna Loa on The Big Island Island.

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