In the wake of Friday's large and damaging meteor strike in Russia that went undetected, NASA has announced plans to improve detection of such meteors and asteroids.
The system is said to be a collection of telescopes about the size of outdoor garbage cans that would scan the sky a few times every night. Each telescope is fitted with a camera with up to 100 megapixels, that are sensitive enough to detect a match flame in New York City when viewed from San Francisco, scientists say.
The goal is to find the objects and give enough advance warning for measures to be taken to protect people, said John Tonry, the principal investigator at ATLAS.
The team predicts the system will offer a one-week warning for a 50-yard diameter asteroid or “city killer” and three weeks for a 150 yard-diameter “county killer.”
Astronomers expect the system to be fully operational by the end of 2015.
Tonry says if ATLAS were up and running before the arrival of the meteor over Russia, it could have provided about a day's warning.
NASA estimates that before entering the Earth’s atmosphere above Russia on Friday, the meteor measured 56 feet in diameter and weighed 10 tons before exploding in the Urals.
Fragments of the asteroid caused an explosion equivalent to 500,000 tons of TNT across the region, blowing out windows and damaging multiple buildings. More than 1,000 people were reported injured.
ATLAS will complement the Institute for Astronomy’s Pan-STARRS project, a system that searches for large “killer asteroids” years, decades, and even centuries before impact with Earth.
However, Pan-STARRS takes a month to complete one sweep of the sky in a deep but narrow survey. ATLAS will search the sky in a closer and wider path to help identify the smaller asteroids and or meteors that hit Earth much more frequently.