Air Force Flying Away from Dangerous Asteroid Tracking Project

Three other PanSTARRS telescopes are planned
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The U.S. Air Force’s cancellation of an “environmental impact statement” (EIS) for the construction and operation of a telescope dedicated to discovering potentially dangerous asteroids does not halt plans for deploying additional telescopes, a project leader tells Government Video.

The University of Hawaii’s first Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS PS1) is operational on the mountain of Haleakala, located on Maui. Three other PanSTARRS telescopes are planned, and the EIS that was canceled by the Air Force—which posted a Federal Register notice announcing the cancellation—concerns a second telescope on Mount Mauna Kea, located on Hawaii.

In the Federal Register notice—dated Dec. 8, 2010—the Air Force says, “Pan-STARRS was to be a USAF-funded University of Hawaii, Institute for Astronomy research program to discover, characterize and track near-Earth objects, primarily asteroids and comets, whose trajectories pass close enough to Earth that they may pose a danger of collision.” The notice also says, “Action: cancellation of Pan-STARRS EIS.”

The Pan-STARRS telescope is primarily sensitive to visible light, though observations can be extended slightly into the infrared passbands, says information on the project. The camera used with the PanSTARRS telescope is the largest digital camera ever built, containing about 1.4 billion pixels spread over an area about 40 centimeters square. For comparison, a typical domestic digital camera contains about 5 million pixels on a chip a few millimeters across. In addition, the camera has an identical set of 5 to 6 optical filters that can be remotely positioned in front of the focal plane. The search for asteroids and potentially hazardous objects may use a wide filter that covers most of the visible waveband from 0.5 to 0.8 microns, providing maximum sensitivity for detecting solar system objects.

However, it is a “because of hardware problems with our first telescope” that construction on the Mauna Kea telescope is being delayed, said Nick Kaiser, the PanSTARRS project’s principle investigator. The second telescope is not canceled, but is delayed until at least 2014, he said. The Pan-STARRS project first telescope—PS1—became operation in 2009, and it discovered an asteroid that is a potential threat to Earth. Last October, the 150 foot-wide asteroid—designated as “2010 ST3”—passed within 4 million miles of Earth, and there remains a possibility that 2010 ST3 will hit the Earth in 2098.

But last Summer it was discovered there were some serious technical problems with Pan-STARRS PS1’s mirror supports, “so we had to fix that, and it cost us a year, so it has thrown our schedule into a spin.” Kaiser said. “ We’re about two years behind the schedule from when we originally started,” he said.

While the Air Force canceled the EIS for the Mauna Kea telescope, its PanSTARRS funding will remain for about another two years, and the project is looking for alternative funding sources, Kaiser said. “We’re already getting some funding from NASA to carry out the observations we’re doing, and possibly from the National Science Foundation to complete the other two telescopes,” he added.