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The University of Hawaii at Hilo has joined the hunt for "killer asteroids."

The university announced it was joining the Pan-STARRS program, which searches for asteroids that may be a threat to earth, including football-field sized asteroids that could slam into the planet and explode with the force of 1,000 megatons of TNT, 20 times bigger than the biggest nuclear weapon ever tested.

There's a one-in-700 chance that an asteroid 300 yards across or bigger could hit the earth this century.

As part of the new partnership, a new telescope is under development on Haleakala in Maui.
Developed to detect the danger, Pan-STARRS -- Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System -- is the first major telescope developed by the institute in decades.
A new dome for a prototype of Pan-STARRS has been completed on Haleakala.

According to Nick Kaiser, project leader, "First light," the first test images from the telescope, are expected next month.

The Hilo astrophysics professors and students will join the project since it has passed the construction phase.

"There is something for them to do (now)" - Rolf Kudritzki, head of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

Pan-STARRS isn't big. The Keck I and II telescopes on Mauna Kea each has a main mirror 10 meters across.
The Pan-STARRS main mirror is just 1.8 meters across.
The big telescopes are designed to look far away at a tiny point. Pan-STARRS will keep its eyes inside the solar system, looking at an area of the sky 40 times the size of the full moon.

The preferred site for the full-scale Pan-STARRS facility, with four 1.8-meter mirrors, is on Mauna Kea. If an environmental study were favourable, the four 1.8-meter instruments would replace a 36-year-old telescope with a single 2.2-meter mirror about 2010.
While the telescopes are small, the digital cameras they use will be the largest ever built, each collecting 1.4 billion pixels of light. That's 200 times more than the 6 to 8 million pixel in a good commercial camera.
The light from the four telescopes will be combined by a computer, then piped to the Maui High Performance Computer Centre for analysis.

Every night the four-fold instrument observes, it will generate 10 million megabytes of information on dangerous asteroids, objects in the Kuiper belt on the edge of the solar system, and theoretical, yet-unseen "dark matter" .

On Mauna Kea the fourfold instrument could find nearly all dangerous asteroids in 10 years. If restricted to less optimum Maui, the search will take 20 years, he said.
The price to protect planet earth: $30 million to date for the single telescope on Maui, and another $40 million for the full set.

Adapted from Source

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The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) is an innovative design for a wide-field imaging facility being developed at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

By using four comparatively small telescopes, each with a 3-degree diameter field of view, the observatory will be able to develop and deploy an economical observing system that will be able to observe the entire available sky several times each month.
The immediate goal of Pan-STARRS is to discover and characterize Earth-approaching objects, both asteroids & comets, that might pose a danger to our planet.


Dome Assembly
December 3 2005


It is planned to become operational in January 2006.
Pan-STARRS will be more powerful for survey work than all existing telescopes combined.
Exploiting recent advances in electronic detector technology, Pan-STARRS will have revolutionary optical sensors with billions of pixels, or picture elements. The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA) is collaborating with Lincoln Laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop the advanced detectors.


Engineering drawing of the 1.8-meter diameter PS1 telescope inside its building on Haleakala.
Credit: University of Hawai'i


The telescopes will have a very large field of view, allowing them to image an area about 30-40 times that of the full moon in a single exposure. The system will rapidly survey large areas of the sky, making it uniquely powerful for detecting transient objects such as supernovae, and for detecting moving objects, such as asteroids.
Once operational, Pan-STARRS will generate huge quantities of data. To process these, the IfA astronomers have teamed up with the Maui High Performance Computer Centre (MHPCC), and with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a leader in the field of massive databases.

The huge database generated by Pan-STARRS will be made available over the Internet so that others may use it for education and research.
The data from Pan-STARRS will be used to address many scientific questions, ranging from the origin of the Solar System to the properties of the Universe on the largest scales. However, a major goal of the project is to make an inventory of potentially dangerous asteroids.

It is now widely recognized that a collision with a large asteroid was responsible for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and that more frequent collisions with smaller asteroids present a real hazard. Fatal asteroid collisions are rare, but when they happen they can be very destructive. In fact, experts have determined that, averaged over time, the risk of dying from an asteroid strike is approximately that of dying in a plane crash. A number of recent widely publicized close encounters with asteroids have highlighted the risk.
The US Congress has charged NASA to support searches for "killer asteroids." These surveys determine the orbits of the asteroids that they discover, and then project them forward to see if they will impact Earth.

"Current surveys have detected roughly half of the objects bigger than a mile in diameter. Impacts of this size cause global-scale catastrophes. Pan-STARRS will help complete this task and will extend the search to much smaller objects" - Nick Kaiser, Pan-STARRS principal investigator.

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