By teaching computers to track asteroids, UW scientists may save the Earth

In five years, a sky-scanning telescope in Chile will begin hunting the heavens for asteroids on a collision course with Earth, and scientists at the University of Washington are at the forefront of work to spot them.

Scientists at the University of Washington are writing computer algorithms that could one day save the world — and that’s no exaggeration.

Working away in the university’s quiet Physics/Astronomy building, these scientists are teaching computers how to sift through massive amounts of data to identify asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

Together with 60 colleagues at six other universities, the 20 UW scientists are part of a massive new data project to catalog space itself, using the largest digital camera ever made.

Five years from now, a sky-scanning telescope under construction in Chile will begin photographing the night sky with a 3,200-megapixel camera. The telescope will have the power to peer into the solar system and beyond, and track things we have never been able to track before — including asteroids, the rubble left behind during the formation of the solar system.

When it is up and running, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will produce 20 terabytes of images every night, and will be able to photograph half the night sky every three days, said Andrew Connolly, one of the UW astronomers working on the project.

It will replace the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which dates back to 1998, and which was only able to cover one-eighth the sky over 10 years. The LSST’s mission is different from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which sends back detailed photos of specific regions of space, but does not take vast surveys of everything in the sky.

“It is going to be a nightly deluge of data,” said Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut who is now executive director of the new B612 Asteroid Institute, which is dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid strikes. “This is a cross between computer science and astronomy.”

The Seattle region’s reputation as a big-data powerhouse is one of the reasons UW…

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