The Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s asteroid discovery algorithm, called HelioLinc3D, has found its first “potentially hazardous” asteroid, named 2022 SF289. This asteroid, about 600 feet long, was detected during a test run of the algorithm with the ATLAS survey in Hawaii. Despite posing no immediate threat to Earth, the discovery showcases the effectiveness of HelioLinc3D in identifying near-Earth asteroids with fewer observations than current methods require. The solar system houses millions of rocky bodies ranging in size, dating back over four billion years when the planets formed.
Among the numerous rocky bodies in our solar system, some, known as near-Earth objects (NEOs), orbit close to our planet. Those that come within about 5 million miles of Earth’s orbit, approximately 20 times the distance to the moon, are particularly significant and termed “potentially hazardous asteroids” (PHAs). To track these PHAs and prevent potential collisions with Earth, scientists utilize specialized telescope systems like the ATLAS survey.
By capturing images of the sky at least four times each night, researchers can identify moving points of light that indicate the presence of PHAs. So far, they’ve discovered around 2,350 PHAs, with likely many more waiting to be found. In early 2025, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, situated in the Chilean Andes, will join this pursuit with its powerful 8.4-meter mirror and a massive 3,200-megapixel camera. This advanced technology will significantly increase the rate of PHA discoveries, as it can survey the sky twice per night, surpassing the capabilities of current telescopes.
The University of Washington’s DiRAC Institute, in collaboration with Smithsonian senior astrophysicist Matthew Holman and Harvard University lecturer, has been working on developing a new type of discovery algorithm for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. This novel algorithm, called HelioLinc3D, was created by Ari Heinze and Siegfried Eggl, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
To validate HelioLinc3D’s capabilities, Heinze and Eggl wanted to test it with existing data to find a new asteroid that conventional algorithms might miss due to limited observations. Their efforts aimed to ensure that Rubin’s forthcoming observations could effectively identify asteroids in its dataset using this advanced algorithm.
John Tonry and Larry Denneau, the lead astronomers of the ATLAS survey, generously provided their data for a test of the HelioLinc3D algorithm. On July 18, 2023, the Rubin team used HelioLinc3D to identify its first potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA), named 2022 SF289. Interestingly, ATLAS had observed 2022 SF289 three times on different nights but had not captured the required four observations on a single night to classify it as a new near-Earth object (NEO).
HelioLinc3D’s strength lies in combining fragmented data from multiple nights, allowing it to make the discovery. According to Larry Denneau, the algorithm’s success in spotting faint objects like 2022 SF289 demonstrates its potential to act as a “bigger, better” telescope. Despite other surveys missing 2022 SF289 due to its passage in front of the starfields of the Milky Way, HelioLinc3D’s ability to recover these faint objects by utilizing multiple nights of data led to the discovery. To further support the findings, additional observations from the Pan-STARRS and Catalina Sky Survey were confirmed, and the B612 Asteroid Institute’s ADAM platform helped recover additional unrecognized observations from the NSF-supported Zwicky Transient Facility telescope.
2022 SF289 is categorized as an Apollo-type near-Earth object (NEO) and comes remarkably close to Earth’s orbit, within 140,000 miles—closer than the moon. Its substantial 600ft diameter earns it the “potentially hazardous” classification. However, reassuringly, projections show that there is no foreseeable risk of a collision with Earth.
The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Electronic Circular MPEC 2023-O26 announced the discovery of 2022 SF289. Presently, scientists have identified 2,350 potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) but estimate that over 3,000 more remain undiscovered.
Rubin scientist Mario Jurić, who leads the HelioLinc3D team at the DiRAC Institute, expressed excitement about the upcoming potential discoveries when the Rubin Observatory starts operating fully in less than two years. With HelioLinc3D, they anticipate discovering objects like 2022 SF289 on a nightly basis, showcasing the power and effectiveness of the new algorithm.
The discovery of 2022 SF289 and the success of HelioLinc3D offer a glimpse into the future of data-intensive astronomy. As we enter the next decade, the emphasis will be on significant advancements in algorithms, including AI-assisted codes, rather than solely on new and large telescopes. This upcoming era promises remarkable progress in the way we uncover celestial objects, making astronomy a fascinating tale of cutting-edge algorithms combined with state-of-the-art observatories.
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