The Arecibo Observatory is huge the radio telescope collapsed; it has thus proved to be a key tool in understanding the risks of asteroids on Earth – and a serious government initiative would be needed to address this.
Before the facility suffered irreversible damage in a series of cable failures this year, Arecibo Observatory it was the most powerful planetary radar system on Earth. Astronomers may not use radar to discover new asteroids, but the data provided by these systems can give scientists details of the size, shape, and location of the object they need to better and faster assess the threat posed to Earth by each asteroid.
“It simply came to our notice then [down] such an iconic facility so secured for radio astronomy and planetary radar community in so many decades; it’s really sad to see it, “said Lindley Johnson, who heads NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, at a virtual meeting of NASA’s Planetary Advisory Committee on Nov. 30, the day before the structure collapsed.” It’s certainly not an ideal situation, but I think it’s really coming down, it’s time to really invest in a new planetary radar capability. “
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But this is easier said than done. Two key factors play a role in investing in planetary radar capability.
One is bureaucratic: planetary radar has to be done from the surface of the Earth. And while NASA is leading the country’s asteroid-focused work, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is leading the federal government’s ground observations, such as the Arecibo Observatory; NASA only paid for the observation time of the radar system. With the exception of NASA’s Hawaii Infrared Telescope facility, all of the agency’s observation facilities are in space.
(This is also complicated. Technically, it is another planetary radar facility in the world, Goldstone In California, NASA leads, but that’s because its primary job is to communicate with spacecraft passing through the Solar System. The radar equipment recently completed the upgrade and returns to normal observations, although it has a less flexible schedule than Arecibo did and does not see any objects from Earth.)
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“The way our agencies are commissioned, Earth observation is the job of the NSF,” Lori Glaze, who heads NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said at the same meeting. – This is not within NASA’s remit.
The second complication is cost. Like the Arecibo, a strong radar beam requires both a powerful transmitter and a huge radio antenna, none of which are cheap.
Overall, the challenges mean that NASA is likely to have to develop agreements with one or more fellow government before a new planetary radar system goes online.
“This kind of thing really requires an agency partnership,” Johnson said, adding that Arecibo itself can be traced back to a partnership led by the Department of Defense. Something similar could spur the planetary radar, he said. “We definitely have the opportunity and the interest in US Space Force “The military branch is interested in technology as a way to track satellites between the Earth and the Moon,” he added.
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The reduction in planetary radar will not affect the center of NASA’s planetary defense system, which focuses on the discovery and tracking of relatively large asteroids that are relatively close to Earth. The detection of such objects is based on facilities that detect optical and infrared light and scan large bands of the sky regularly enough to detect when new fast moving point appears in the background of stars.
Radar is not capable of this; requires scientists to know exactly where the object they want to study is exactly so that they can show the narrow radar beam to bounce off the object. Instead, planetary defense experts use radar to more quickly plot the object’s trajectory in the future and determine the object’s characteristics, such as shape and density, that could affect the divert the asteroid if it appears to affect the Earth.
“As for planetary defense and NEO [near-Earth object] the observations are worrying, it’s just a slight negative impact, “Johnson said of the loss of Arecibo’s radar system.” This does not affect the discovery rate of Near-Earth objects at all, it only has some effect on our possibilities, characterize these objects. “
Still, the radar data is nice – and definitely something Johnson wants for the planetary protection community.
Green Bank Observatory In West Virginia, even before the loss of Arecibo, it planned to add radar capability to its primary radio channel, scientists say, although the system, like Goldstone, will not replicate Arecibo’s special capabilities. And even this new capability would build on an existing facility, rather than start from scratch, with both benefits and risks.
“In a perfect world, I would pursue a new planetary radar capability,” Johnson said before the final collapse of Arecibo. “He’s trying to maintain these old facilities – they require a lot of maintenance.”
But the new ability wouldn’t mean a copy of Arecibo’s iconic food, he stressed. “It’s time to look at the next generation of planetary radar capabilities,” he said, especially assuming that the range of vessels could be a more attractive approach now than Arecibo’s only huge vessel.
“The technology has progressed since radar capability was installed in Arecibo 30 and 40 years ago,” Johnson said. – We must reap the benefits.
Email Meghan Bartels at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and Facebook.