Hunting for evidence of asteroids

The latest eye on the Hawaiian sky has gone fully operational.

PanSTARRS 1 is the first bit of the Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System. The 1.8m telescope will scan the night skies continuously with a 1.4 gigapixel camera that will map the skies above it once every six months. It will produce catalogues of asteroids, comets, stars and quasars. Images will be shipped back to the home computers at a rate of four terabytes a night and each of the 500 or so exposures a night will be compared to earlier images of the same patch of the sky to determine whether or not anything has moved or changed and so needs investigating. The telescope is expected to identify 100,000 new asteroids, 5 billion stars, 500 million galaxies and any large objects lying beyond the orbit of Neptune in the solar system. PS1 is the prototype of PS4, a telescope with four times the power of the new scope.

The major objective of the new system is to identify asteroids and observe them for long enough to constrain where they’ll be headed in the future, thus identifying any potential problems in store for us. The Earth has been hit many a time in the past, leaving impact craters and other signs of a violent incursion. However, evidence for an impact is not always as clear cut as it may seem. Evidence of an impact in the Younger Dryas era includes nanodiamonds – small diamonds created by a widely distributed burst of massive pressure and heat – and widespread fires identified by burnt material. However, other researchers have suggested that the layers in which these are found are more widely spaced than previously thought, suggesting a series of events rather than one big one. Furthermore, analysis of the burnt remains suggests a top temperature in the hundreds rather than thousands of degrees, suggesting the material is simply ordinary forest floor matter exposed to normal low intensity wildfires.

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