Flagstaff Astronomers Guard Against Hazardous Asteroids

Jul 25, 2017

Flagstaff is a research hub for "near Earth objects"—space rocks that zip through our cosmic neighborhood. More than a thousand new objects are found every year and some of them could pose a threat to Earth. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on the people who keep a close eye on the skies.

Telescope engineer Dan Avner with FROST
Credit Melissa Sevigny


Computers hum inside a telescope dome on Anderson Mesa south of Flagstaff. A coffeepot and a cot are crammed into the tiny room. Telescope engineer Dan Avner sleeps here a lot. He says he’s gotten used to the spiders. “Like wolf spiders the size of my hand, things like that,” Avner jokes. “Out at the telescope dome you just have to become one with them. It’s inevitable.”  

This is the Flagstaff Robotic Survey Telescope, or FROST. It’s Avner’s master’s thesis project at Northern Arizona University. He types in a command and the telescope whirrs awake.

The FROST telescope dome on Anderson Mesa
Credit Melissa Sevigny

“There we go!” he says. “You want to hear those whirling sounds, if you hear a bang or a clash you know you’re in big trouble.”

The telescope sat unused for nearly a decade until Avner wrote software to make it hunt asteroids on its own, without a human to guide it. Avner says, “It’s kind of like the silent guardian, FROST, observing these objects at night, without us having to worry about actually being awake and catching them.”

Nick Moskovitz of Lowell Observatory says Flagstaff has always been a haven for offbeat science.

“Asteroid science is kind of a niche area of astronomy,” he says. “For decades and decades asteroids were viewed as the vermin of the sky. They were getting in the way of all those interesting stars and galaxies that real astronomers were studying.”

Flagstaff’s dark skies and moon-like geology make it attractive to astronomers who want to study near-Earth objects. Moskovitz chose that focus in graduate school. “Asteroids I can actually wrap my head around,” he explains. “They’re a tangible object that are just in our cosmic backyard. They’re there. I can reach out and imagine touching one of those.”

Now Moskovitz leads the Mission Accessible Near-Earth Object Survey, or MANOS. He studies asteroids close enough to reach by spacecraft using the Discovery Channel Telescope in Happy Jack.

The Discovery Channel Telescope in Happy Jack
Credit Melissa Sevigny

At dusk, the dome slides opens and the telescope swings into position. With this instrument’s 14-foot mirror, Moskovitz gets a good look at about ten percent of all near-Earth objects discovered.

“That’s pretty good, that’s pretty good,” he says. “MANOS is doing a good job trying to keep up with that influx of new and interesting objects that show up every day.”

Control computers for the Discovery Channel Telescope
Credit Melissa Sevigny

Astronomer David Trilling runs a different program at Northern Arizona University. He’s in charge of a “rapid response network” made up of telescopes in Flagstaff, Hawaii, Mexico, Chile and South Africa. They leap into action when a new, potentially dangerous object is found.

“The idea is, a newly discovered asteroid, before it disappears, let’s see if we can measure its size, its rotation period, its composition and help improve its orbit as well—all within a span of a few hours or a few days after discovery,” Trilling says.

It’s the kind of information we’d want to have if an asteroid ever set a collision course for Earth.

“And that’s a really, really thankless job,” Trilling adds, “I mean, it’s night after night after night making measurements.”

So why do it? Trilling says it’s not just about protecting the planet. For him, it’s about excitement of discovery.  “The pieces of the solar system are coming to us and we are exploring all of these bits every night; we’re using some telescope somewhere to explore some bit of the universe that just happened to fly by us. And I think that’s just fun.”

It’s like being an astronaut, he says—except without the space suit.