NASA is funding a telescope in South Africa to detect asteroids that could wipe out a city

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande has announced the launch of the new ATLAS asteroid alert system telescope in South Africa.

The system, operated by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and funded by the North American Space Agency (NASA), currently has two telescopes in Hawaii that cover the Northern Hemisphere.

Now, telescopes have been built at the El Sauce Observatory in Chile and the Sutherland Observing Station in South Africa to scan from the Southern Hemisphere.

The two locations were selected for their access to the southern part of the sky as well as their time zones, which allow for night observation when it is daytime in Hawaii. The four telescopes are capable of scanning the entire dark sky every 24 hours for objects that could collide with the Earth.

“The construction of the two additional ATLAS telescopes, in South Africa and Chile, is now complete. They have already begun operations – and the South African telescope, ATLAS-Sutherland, has already discovered its first near-Earth object,” said Nzimande.

John Tonry, ATLAS principal investigator and professor at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, says ‘an asteroid that hits the Earth can come at any time from any direction, so it is good to know that ATLAS is now surveying all the sky, all the time’.

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“The ATLAS system is specially designed to detect objects that approach very close to Earth – closer than the distance to the moon, about 240,000 km or 150,000 miles,” he said.

The system can provide one day’s warning for a 10-metre diameter asteroid, which would be capable of city-level destruction, and up to three weeks’ warning for a 100-metre diameter asteroid, which could have 10 times the destructive power of the recent Hunga Tonga volcano eruption if it were to strike the Earth.

Read: South Africa to launch three nanosatellites as part of R27 million space project

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