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Courtesy of CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva, via Wikimedia Commons

An AI algorithm just located a ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid

Babe wake up, a new existential threat just dropped

Artificial intelligence is often touted as the potential source of humanity’s downfall, capable of wiping us off the face of the Earth, but recently the technology helped identify a threat that might just get there first. More specifically, a “potentially hazardous asteroid” (PHA) has been identified by a space-gazing algorithm for the first time, having slipped under human scientists’ radars.

As uncovered by the astronomical algorithm HelioLinc3D, the asteroid – catchily named 2022 SF289 – is roughly 600 feet long, about 1.75 times the length of a football pitch, or six times longer than a blue whale. It’s labelled “potentially hazardous” because it’s on track to pass within 140,000 miles of our planet, which is closer than the orbit of the moon.

Should we be worried? Should NASA start making plans to smash a second spacecraft into a rogue space rock? Is Leonardo DiCaprio about to appear on our TV screens, warning of our impending doom? Probably not.

Luckily for us, the chances of 2022 SF289 hitting Earth in the next 100 years look pretty slim, according to scientists’ projections. That isn’t to say that we’re free from planetary doom just yet, though. So far, scientists have uncovered 2,350 PHAs, but predict that there are more than 3,000 more hurtling through space, yet to be discovered.

Plus, last year’s little diversion experiment by NASA managed to dislodge another 37 boulders, which are now hurtling through space at 13,000 miles per hour, making them “as deadly as Hiroshima”. Luckily, they’re still a few million miles away, but it doesn’t bode particularly well for any future attempts, where the asteroid is actually on track to impact Earth.

On a more positive note, HelioLinc3D is an algorithm developed for the Vera Rubin Observatory in Northern Chile (which isn’t actually open yet, but will pave the way for a variety of space-based discoveries when it does). Its recent discovery was actually a test run, using data from the ATLAS survey in Hawaii, but it proves that HelioLinc3D can beat existing, conventional algorithms in detecting potentially hazardous rocks – a capability that will get even stronger when the Vera Rubin Observatory launches.

“By demonstrating the real-world effectiveness of the software that Rubin will use to look for thousands of yet-unknown potentially hazardous asteroids, the discovery of 2022 SF289 makes us all safer,” says Rubin scientist Ari Heinze, the principal developer of HelioLinc3D and a researcher at the University of Washington, in a statement. Others say that HelioLinc3D, in combination with the new observatory, will be capable of spotting potentially-hazardous objects like 2022 SF289 every single night.

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