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Maui Finds Its Place in Space

Community coordinates efforts to protect Earth from catastrophic collisions.

February 24, 2011
Cindy Schumacher

“The only way to beat the odds is to locate every possible asteroid or comet that could pose a threat to the Earth,” said David Levy, co-discover of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with the planet Jupiter in 1994.

Exceptionally good observing conditions on Maui attract those who track potential threats to our planet.

“Maui is a huge participant in the future space workforce,” said Larry Denneau, a senior software engineer for the PanSTARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System atop Haleakalä) Moving Object Processing System. “As one of the software architects for the asteroid detection system, I am excited to see PanSTARRS begin to realize its potential as a hazardous asteroid finder, and to see the Maui community involved in discovering and tracking them,” he said.

Article Photos

As this artist’s conception of an asteroid approaching Earth depicts, from a cosmic point of view, our planet’s eco-system is extremely fragile. Scientists propose that mass extinctions have occurred due to the impact of asteroids only a mile in diameter—and many known asteroids are larger than this. But Maui residents at every level are searching the sky, dedicated to keeping Earth safe from catastrophic impacts.

Image: courtesy of John Pye

Asteroids, also called minor planets, are rocky fragments created during the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Most of them orbit the sun in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that contains millions of irregularly shaped chunks of debris ranging widely in size.

“However, asteroids and comets can stray from their usual orbits, and given time, could collide with the Earth,” said Denneau.

So what can your average Maui resident do about that? As it turns out, there are many opportunities to keep an eye on the sky right here on the Valley Isle.

“The UHMC NASA Space Grant Program gives financial support to students who want hands-on experience with the technologies of tracking space objects,” said Dr. John Pye, astronomy professor and associate director for the NASA Space Grant Program at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. “This semester, my students are learning how to use and access different telescopes, collect data on the coordinates of asteroids and then give presentations about their work.”

“NASA is bringing great opportunities to the islands, and they have provided us with valuable tools in astrophysics,” said Kevin Roy, one of Pye’s students currently in the UHMC NASA Space Grant Program. “This work is so important. Every day over 1,000 potentially hazardous asteroids pass by in the vicinity of the Earth and moon. Many of these NEOs aren’t discovered until they are very close to us, because they are either very dim or quite small.

“If this coordinated effort continues to grow among everyone involved on Maui, the public may start seeing more discoveries from our island,” Roy said.

Maui High School students Ross Ito, Athens Brown and Dane Oshiro are enrolled in science teacher Keith Imada’s Design Technology course at Maui High School.

“Our project is collaboration between the PanSTARRS organization and Maui High students,” said Imada “The objective is finding NEOs that have a chance of hitting Earth. Our students have followed up on past discoveries and made further observations. We share our data with scientists at the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) in Pukalani, who then work with PanSTARRS to analyze our data.”

“Working with PanSTARRS has been a great experience,” said Oshiro, a Maui High School Design Technology student team leader. “I think that programs that allow youth to be exposed to fields outside of their general sciences are a great way to fuel enthusiasm in science-related careers,” he said.

At Baldwin High School, Science Teacher Graham De Vey, along with Dr. JD Armstrong of the IfA in Pukalani, initiated a program called “Skills in the Sky.”

“JD and I train students in using the computer program Astrometrica to try to identify moving asteroids against a background of stars,” said De Vey. “We took part in an international search for asteroids called the “PanSTARRS Asteroid Search Campaign.” Our Baldwin students submitted reports on several objects of interest.”

What can we do if an asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth?

“Most scientists agree that the best approach would be to push a threatening asteroid or comet into a different orbit—one that takes it away from Earth,” Denneau said.

One method is the Gravity Tractor, which applies a slight pull instead of a push. (Ed Lu, co-inventor of the Gravity Tractor, was a solar physicist at University of Hawai‘i before becoming an astronaut.)

“The Gravity Tractor spacecraft uses an ion engine to hover above the asteroid’s surface,” said Denneau. “The asteroid feels the very slight gravitational pull of the spacecraft and accelerates slowly towards it. Calculations by NASA astronauts Ed Lu and Stan Love show that given several years’ warning, such a device would be capable of changing a dangerous asteroid’s orbit enough to make it miss the Earth.”



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