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News Science

Asteroid Hunting

Many of you will have seen the video of the meteor that exploded into the atmosphere above Russia last week, and I would just like to offer an overview of the event from a practical scientific prespective.

The meteor was about 15 metres across, and as such too small to detect. As we all saw though a meteor of this size can do extensive damage. It weighed about 7000 metric tonnes, travelling at 18 Km per second and exploded at a height of between 15 and 20 Km. This is pretty close to the ground if you think that an aeroplane flies at about 10Km and we are certainly not dealing with somewhere where nothing happens.

The force of the explosion was about 30 times that of the Hiroshima bomb, a pretty devastating blow by all counts. We should think ourselves lucky that it did not happen over a major city.

Trees blown over after the 1908 impact
Trees blown over after the 1908 meteor impact

In 1908 in Tunguska also in Russia a much larger meteor hit. This one was about the size of the DA14 meteor that flew past Earth later on the same day last week, and it blew trees down over an area of about 2000 square Km. Once again it hit over Siberia so less damage than could have occurred, but if you think that the event of last week over Russia only threw out about 5% of the force of this one than we don’t need much imagination to envisage the possible catastrophe. Several photos are available around the net and I offer one above. There are also plenty of huge craters to see.

NASA have the Near Earth Program, and they have the mission of monitoring the many things that fly close to Earth.

It is not an easy job though as you might imagine, they use ground based telescopes so can only see something that is big enough to reflect enough light, and last week’s hit came directly in line with the sun, so practically impossible to see.

NASA has managed to identify 90% of near Earth asteroids that are more than 1 Km across, and something of this size might threaten life on Earth itself if it hit. There are more than a million near Earth asteroids however that are 20 metres across or more but  very few of these have been identified and mapped.

The B612 Project is hoping to put a telescope into Space before 2018 that will be able to spot something of that size, but until then they will go largely unseen.

Keeping on a related topic last May I put a post up about asteroid mining, and recently the BBC has carried some updates on this project.

It is currently a 2 horse race, but it seems very speculative. And I remember a song about horses of this type.

Categories
News Science Space Technology

The world’s most powerful radio telescope is now functioning!

One of the best places to put a telescope is in the Atacama Desert, which is on the boarder of Chile and Peru – currently there are around 20 telescopes (both radio and optical) functioning in the area.

The Alma telescope

In the last few days, the world’s largest radio telescope, the Alma telescope, has began to function. Currently the telescope is made up of around 20 massive antenna dishes, which work in harmony to produce amazingly detailed pictures of outer space.

The project has input from all around the world, with Europe, North America, East Asia and the Republic of Chile forming a partnership, all doing their bit to add more antenna dishes and improve the telescope.

The ALMA Telescope
The antenna dishes that currently make up the telescope ALMA Telescope

When the project is completed, (hopefully within the next 20 years if all goes to plan) the telescope will have a whopping 66 dishes at its disposal, all of which it can use to gaze at the stars in fantastic detail!

Why the Atacama Desert?

You are probably wondering why the Atacama Desert is such a hotspot for telescope activity. Well there are a number of reasons, but the main ones are that it has clear skies almost all the time, in addition to very dry air – meaning that its hard for humans to breath there due to low oxygen levels, but for the telescopes, that means very little interference from anything in the space above.

Furthermore, the desert has many high flat areas, meaning that telescopes can be closer to the atmosphere, meaning even less interference. In addition to this, because the Atacama is a desert, it has virtually no light pollution. Basically it is an astronomer’s dream location!

Is it working?

The project has only been live for less than a week now, but already some stunning high detailed pictures of space area already beginning to emerge. Below is one of these great pictures:

ALMA Telescope deep space picture
A picture of deep space made possible by the ALMA Telescope

Because the light we can see here on earth is often millions, if not billions of years old, we are able to see into the past when looking up at the sky, using super powerful telescopes like the Alma one.

Scientists believe that we will be able to see events that happened just 400 million years after the big bang, due to the light delay, hence enabling us to understand better than ever before the formation of the early universe.

The Alma telescope is just one small cog in our planets fascinating scientific road of discovery, however one thing’s for sure: this ‘small cog’ should be able to help us understand a lot more about the universe than ever before!