Impact of Technology Series: Asteroid 2005 YU55 Brushes Earth; “It was a NEAT Show”

November 8, 2011, By George Lang

The NBC Nightly News and MSNBC provided stunning live coverage tonight of asteroid 2005 YU55. The Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) system at the Clay Center observatory in California (via the Goldstone radar antenna) provided powerful computer-driven video of the fast moving asteroid as it came closer to Earth than the Moon on its way through our Solar System. The Moon is approximately 240,000 miles from Earth and 2005 YU55 a mere 201,000 miles at its closest approach; a near miss in astronomical terms! The thing is moving 29,000 MPH and is larger than a football field.

There was never a risk of the asteroid striking the Earth during this pass; in fact, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists knew when it was discovered that the likelihood of “deep impact” was nil. An important question comes to mind regarding this incident: How did the NEAT system determine so far in advance the trajectory of the deep space object? The answer: powerful computers!

In 1995, the, “(CCD) camera and telescope atop Mt. Haleakala, Maui, HI, (sic) part of the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) project, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA… [installed new] state-of-the-art computer and data analysis hardware… [with] four 300-megahertz processors [Oh, behold the incredible power of 1995 computers! (t.i.c.)] devoted solely to the enormous amount of data coming back from the NEAT telescope on a nightly basis.” Other facilities followed suit.

After the well-publicized 1994 impact of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet on Jupiter, the scientific community—indeed, the entire world—stood up and took notice. If it could happen in the back yard of our own Solar System, perhaps it could happen here on Earth. The result: NASA ended up doubling the taxpayer funded near Earth tracking program.

A few years later Hollywood jumped on the opportunistic bandwagon of interest and fear generated by the event and created two highly-successful blockbuster movies, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fully supported the making of these films.

“NEAT was built and is being managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA.”

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