More than 100 of the largest research telescopes have ceased operations in the last couple of months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most observatories’ directors claimed that the massive tools could be offline for months, which would put astronomical discoveries ‘on hold.’
Asteroid Detection is Made Online
In spite of the COVID-19 outbreak and measures taken so far to stop the spread of the pathogen led to the shut down of more than 100 major telescopes, asteroid identification efforts continue online, the Astronomy magazine has reported.
The pandemic spreading to numerous countries of the world has reportedly not reduced the attempts to detect asteroids that might someday pose a threat to Earth and humanity. NASA funds large asteroid-hunting projects, monitoring more than 90 percent of the near-Earth objects (NEOs), which include comets and asteroids, larger than 460 feet (140 meters) in size.
The space agency depends on the duo Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) observatories in Hawaii, three Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) telescopes located in Arizona, and NEOWISE, a space telescope re-purposed to find NEOs by monitoring the space for possible threats.
NASA’s Asteroid Seekers
The Pan-STARRS1 and Pan-STARRS2, located on the top of the Haleakala mountain on Maui, Hawaii, both measure 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in diameter and feature wide-angle views with 1,400-megapixel cameras to monitor the skies.
The Catalina Sky Survey has two detection telescopes on Mount Lemmon, Arizona, and is able to identify countless NEOs. Adding to the data already collected on potentially dangerous space rocks is a critical aspect of the hunt for NEOs, as any information of an object for a few nights can end up building enough database to successfully determine an asteroid’s size, composition and orbit.
“Each NEO candidate must be treated as if it were a potential impactor until impact solutions can be ruled out,” Eric Christensen, chief of the Catalina Sky Survey, said.
Most Telescopes Shut Down
All the new information on NEOs is normally sent to the Minor Planet Center, with further global observations monitoring the objects’ pathways in accurate detail. Still, due to the face that the majority of telescopes’ operations have been suspended because of the pandemic, there are fewer tools to conduct crucial research of newly-discovered space rocks.
The Catalina Sky Survey and Pan-STARRS now have to depend more on their follow-up work, which lowers their chances to make new discoveries significantly. One network that is still collecting new information is the Las Cumbres Observatory. However, while it has some of its telescopes still operating, many small, robotic telescopes have been shut down.
“Several of the most prolific follow-up sites — in Arizona, Chile, and elsewhere — have unfortunately had to cease operations due to COVID-19 concerns. This has shifted more of the follow-up burden back to the survey programs,” said Eric Christensen.
Ken Chambers, director Pan-STARRS, also stated that social distancing measures have also stopped the maintenance work, without which the telescopes cannot function.
“We are adapting our observing strategy to do more self-follow-up… This will mean we make fewer discoveries and that we will miss some objects that we would have found in normal times,” said Chambers.