Pan-STARRS 1 finds 10,000th near-Earth object yet known

The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope atop Haleakala garnered the honor of discovering the 10,000th near-Earth object, asteroid 2013 MZ5, on the night of June 18, according to NASA.

The asteroid is about 1,000 feet across and will not approach Earth close enough to be considered potentially hazardous, the news release said.

Pan-STARRS 1, whose sister telescope is set to be fully operational next summer, has found nearly 600 of the 10,000 near-Earth objects discovered to date, said University of Hawaii astronomer Richard Wainscoat. The telescope is run by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and receives NASA funding.

“Finding 10,000 near-Earth objects is a significant milestone,” said Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “But there are at least 10 times that many more to be found before we can be assured we will have found any and all that could impact and do significant harm to the citizens of Earth.”

Near-Earth objects are asteroids and comets that can approach Earth’s orbital distance to within 28 million miles, the NASA news release Tuesday said. Objects range in size from a few feet to 25 miles for the largest object, asteroid 1036 Ganymed.

The first near-Earth object was discovered in 1898, said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. In the next century, only 500 more objects were found.

“But then, with the advent of NASA’s NEO Observations program in 1998, we’ve been racking them up ever since,” Yeomans said. “And with new, more capable systems coming on line, we are learning even more about where the NEOs are currently in our solar system, and where they will be in the future.”

Of the 10,000 objects, roughly 10 percent are larger than six-tenths of a mile in size – roughly the size that could produce global consequences should one impact the Earth, NASA said.

However, none of these larger objects currently pose an impact threat, and probably only a few dozen more of these large objects remain undiscovered, NASA said.

Pan-STARRS 1 view of the sky will be enhanced with the addition of Pan-STARRS 2, which will become fully operational hopefully in July 2014, said William Burgett, Pan-STARRS project manager for the UH Institute for Astronomy.

(A story on Page A1 Sunday had the incorrect operational date due to information provided to The Maui News. Also, the work by Armstrong Pacific on the telescope involved installing a new mezzanine and reinforcing the structural steel and framework. The work did not involve raising the foundation.)

The addition of the Pan-STARRS 2 telescope next to the currently operating Pan-STARRS 1 will create “by far the most powerful wide-field imaging system in existence,” said Nick Kaiser, principal investigator of Pan-STARRS at the UH Institute for Astronomy, earlier this year.

The Pan-STARRS design, developed at the IfA, involves a combination of relatively small mirrors with very large digital cameras that create a viewing system that can observe the entire sky several times each month, the website said. Astronomers get to visit the whole visible sky about 20 times a year – which makes it ideal for observing asteroids and other near-Earth objects.

The addition of Pan-STARRS 2 to Pan-STARRS 1, which went into operation in March 2009, will allow for doubling of the viewable light, according to UH officials.

The infrastructure for the new telescope and its 1.8-meter main mirror and 0.9-meter secondary mirror are currently in place, Burgett said. After the corrector lenses, filters, camera and other pieces are put in place and installed, the first test images will be taken between July 11 and 15, he said.

“That first image will be really, really ugly,” he said, adding that months of calibrating the optics will be required.

Assemblers of the new telescope will have to wait until a gigapixel camera – being made at the University of Hawaii-Manoa – and science-grade ccds, the devices that convert light into digital images that are being made at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Lab, are delivered.

“We make the camera here,” Burgett said. “We have the world’s best team here at IfA. It’s a real accomplishment for UH.”

Large pixel cameras are necessary because of Pan STARRS’ wider field of view, compared to typical telescopes. The cameras will allow for high resolution views of a wide “patch of sky,” Burgett said.

He’s hoping to be being fully operational in July 2014.

* Lee Imada can be reached at