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Gravity tractor
How do you divert a potentially threatening asteroid? One of the suggested scenarios is to station a “gravity tractor” near the asteroid so that the gravitational interaction gradually shifts the threatening object to a non-threatening trajectory. (FIAAA / B612 Foundation Illustration / Dan Durda)

The B612 Foundation is setting up an Asteroid Institute to study techniques for detecting and diverting near-Earth objects that may threaten our planet – and giving the University of Washington a leading role.

The B612 Asteroid Institute’s first two postdoctoral research fellows will be posted to UW’s DIRAC Institute, where they’ll help develop analytical tools to track asteroids and assess how much of an impact risk they pose.

That task meshes with the 15-year-old B612 Foundation’s mission of calling attention to the asteroid threat and the technologies that will be needed to spare us from the fate that the dinosaurs faced 65 million years ago.

“In a sense, the Asteroid Institute reflects what we’ve always been doing,” B612 President Danica Remy told GeekWire during a visit to Seattle.

The institute’s establishment coincides with a reorganization of the nonprofit foundation’s structure: Remy, who has served as B612’s chief operating officer for the past five years, is taking over the lead role at the California-based foundation. Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the foundation’s co-founder and longtime CEO, is shifting places to become the B612 Asteroid Institute’s executive director.

“It was really important to have the administrative, managerial and fundraising side as well as the technical side,” Lu explained. Now Lu will focus on the technical side from his home base in Silicon Valley, while keeping in touch with research partners in Seattle.

The Asteroid Institute’s first two postdoctoral researchers already have been selected, but Lu said he’s holding off on identifying them until they start their three-year stint at UW.

UW astronomer Andrew Connolly, director of the DIRAC Institute, said he expects the researchers’ work to benefit asteroid science as well as planetary protection.

“They tie in together really well,” Connolly told GeekWire, “because if you understand the physics of how asteroids evolve and how they interact with a variety of effects in the solar system, the outcome of that is that we have the ability to predict the potential for impact.”

The Chelyabinsk meteor explosion in the skies over Russia, which injured more than 1,000 people in 2013, served as a wakeup call about the potential destructive power of near-Earth objects. NASA is spending $50 million a year to identify and track near-Earth objects, but some analysts say that’s a “pittance” compared to what’s required to characterize the risk accurately.

Previously: What to do if an asteroid comes our way

In the past, B612 has tried to build up support for the Sentinel Space Telescope, a $450 million mission that would put an infrared observatory into an orbit optimized for detecting threatening asteroids. But Lu noted that other projects, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, are already on track for asteroid detection.

“We’re not pursuing Sentinel anymore because of LSST, and hopefully because of the eventual approval of NEOCam,” Lu told GeekWire.

Instead, he’s focusing the institute on different priorities, starting with the Asteroid Decision Analysis Machine, or ADAM. Lu said ADAM would analyze the flood of data that’s expected to flow from LSST and other next-generation space surveys. The current discovery rate for asteroids is roughly 30 per week, but that rate is expected to rise to thousands per week once LSST kicks in.

Lu said UW’s DIRAC Institute is well-suited to contribute to ADAM’s development because LSST data analysis is one of its prime objectives. “It’s important for young scientists to be close to the source of the data,” he explained.

Another priority is to develop small satellites that take advantage of a technology known as synthetic tracking. The technique could identify the track of a moving asteroid even when the asteroid’s long-exposure image is too smeared out to see clearly.

“The data processing required to do that is fairly extreme,” Lu said, “but given the progress we’ve made with Moore’s Law, it’s doable today.”

Simulations conducted by Caltech researchers suggest that synthetic tracking could detect asteroids as small as 25 feet across, which is less than half the width of the asteroid that caused the Chelyabinsk blast. A constellation of synthetic tracking satellites could be launched into space for a fraction of Sentinel’s cost, Lu said.

Remy said the B612 Asteroid Institute will be run as a virtual institute, analogous to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, with a team of research collaborators from UW as well as other institutions. She said B612 will continue to work on other programs that focus on public education and advocacy, such as the annual Asteroid Day campaign that reaches its climax on June 30.

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