Univ. of Aizu team eyes public asteroid hunt based on web app

A team of researchers at the University of Aizu in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Aizuwakamatsu is launching a project that would enable the general public to look for asteroids that could collide with Earth by using a web app. In this project, the team led by associate professor Kohei Kitazato, 42, will use photos of astral bodies taken with the Subaru Telescope at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan's Hawaii observatory. The team envisions soliciting cooperation from a number of people in identifying potentially dangerous asteroids from among a massive amount of data involving more than 700,000 photos. The researchers are trying to take advantage of growing public interest in the universe, spurred by the successful return to Earth of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft with samples of dust from the asteroid Ryugu on a space mission commissioned by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). "We would like as many people as possible to join this project for the defense of planet Earth," Kitazato said. A prototype app for the project has already been completed and the team will begin test operations of it by the end of the current fiscal year to next March. When the app is activated, users get a set of five continuous shots taken by Subaru on their computer screens. In order to discover asteroids, they are supposed to observe numerous stars caught in the photos very closely by, for instance, advancing images frame by frame while paying attention to see if there are moving stars or stars with oval or linear shapes. It would take about 10 minutes for a round of this kind of work once users become accustomed to it, according to the team. Conventional methods require stargazers to continue observing night skies with a telescope for a certain period of time. Using the app would likely make it much easier to more casually look for asteroids -- even from indoors and without spending money. In a case where what appears to be an asteroid is found on a computer screen, the observer is supposed to send information about when the relevant photo was taken as well as the asteroid's location to the Minor Planet Center of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the United States. If certified as a new celestial body, the discoverer will be given the naming right. Data collected and managed by the center are used by research institutions worldwide as important tools for safeguarding Earth from space disasters. For example, it is possible to analyze the chance of an asteroid crashing into Earth from its speed and moving direction. Discovering an asteroid that poses a threat early, coupled with analysis of its size, orbit and other details, may make it possible to predict when it might collide with Earth or even where on Earth's surface it might hit. This would eventually minimize damage on the human side, helping to encourage people to evacuate in advance and take various other precautions, according to team members. Asteroids rarely collide with Earth. But an enormous meteor about 20 meters in diameter exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013, injuring about 1,500 people and causing widespread damage. Asteroids are astral objects circling the sun. Many of them exist between Mars and Jupiter, but some come close to Earth's orbit. More than 28,000 Earth-approaching asteroids have so far been discovered, according to Kitazato. As for the research team, Seitaro Urakawa, senior researcher at the nonprofit Japan Spaceguard Association, serves as a representative. Kitazato, a planetary science expert, is participating as an adviser. Aizu Laboratory Inc., a venture business originating from the University of Aizu, is involved in developing the web app. University students are expected to join the project in the future. The app will be made public as soon as 2023. "We would like as many people as possible to find pleasure in discovering asteroids and acknowledge how we work to help prepare for disasters from space," Kitazato said. (Translated by Kyodo News)