South Africa’s Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Blade Nzimande, has announced the launch of the new ATLAS asteroid alert system telescope in South Africa. The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy will operate the telescope. Furthermore, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will fund it.
The ATLAS system currently has two telescopes in Hawaii covering the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the new telescope is among a pair of telescopes under the same initiative to observe the southern skies. Consequently, the other Southern telescope is in El Sauce Observatory in Chile.
The operators chose the two locations for their access to the southern part of the sky and their time zones. This is because it enables night observation during Hawaii’s daytime hours. Resultingly, the four telescopes can scan the entire dark sky every 24 hours for objects that could collide with the Earth.
“The construction of the two additional ATLAS telescopes, in South Africa and Chile, is now complete. They have already begun operations – and the South African telescope, ATLAS-Sutherland, has already discovered its first near-Earth object,” said Nzimande.
John Tonry, ATLAS principal investigator and professor at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, noted that “an asteroid that hits the Earth can come at any time from any direction, so it is good to know that ATLAS is now surveying all the sky, all the time”. “The ATLAS system is specially designed to detect objects that approach very close to Earth. This is closer than the distance to the moon, about 240,000 km or 150,000 miles,” he said.
The system can provide one day’s warning for a 10-metre diameter asteroid, capable of city-level destruction. On the other hand, it can also provide up to three weeks’ warning for a 100-metre diameter asteroid.