Rob Ratkowski
The PS1 Observatory on Haleakala, Maui just before sunrise.
By
updated 2/28/2011 5:13:02 PM ET 2011-02-28T22:13:02

A telescope high atop a volcano peak in Hawaii has set a new asteroid-hunting record: 19 space rocks discovered in one night, the most ever by a single telescope, astronomers say.

The Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope, located at the summit of Maui's Haleakala volcano, set the mark on Jan. 29, discovering 19 near-Earth asteroids. Two of the space rocks have orbits that will bring them extremely close to our planet in the next 100 years, so scientists will be keeping an eye on them, researchers said.

"This record number of discoveries shows that PS1 is the world's most powerful telescope for this kind of study," Nick Kaiser of the University of Hawaii, head of the Pan-STARRS project, said in a statement Thursday (Feb. 24). "NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's support of this project illustrates how seriously they are taking the threat from near-Earth asteroids."

Hunting for asteroids

Scientists discover asteroids by tracking their movement against the relatively static background of stars. To confirm their finds, researchers must make multiple observations within a few days or so to define the asteroids' orbits.

Otherwise, the asteroids are likely to be "lost," researchers said. Pan-STARRS PS1, which has been billed as the world's largest digital camera, is designed to snap hundreds of photos of the sky each night, then compare them to find moving asteroids in deep space.

Pan-STARRS astronomers picked up 30 potential asteroids on the night of Jan. 29. They sent their discoveries to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., which collects and distributes data about asteroids and comets, allowing other astronomers to re-observe the objects.

This helps spread the confirmation workload around to different teams, but the weather didn't cooperate well in this case, researchers said.

"Usually there are several mainland observatories that would help us confirm our discoveries, but widespread snowstorms there closed down many of them, so we had to scramble to confirm many of the discoveries ourselves," said Richard Wainscoat, also of the University of Hawaii.

Confirming the candidates

Wainscoat and several colleagues spent the next three nights following Jan. 29 searching for the asteroids, using telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii.

They were able to confirm 12 of the space rocks, and other telescopes around the world confirmed another seven, bringing the total to 19.

The other 11 candidates got away, moving too far to be found, researchers said.

Two of the newly discovered space rocks will zip pretty close to Earth in the relatively near future. They pose no immediate danger, but a collision in the next century or so cannot be ruled out, researchers said.

The Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope ("PanSTARRS" is short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) was designed specifically to hunt for potentially threatening asteroids. It has a main mirror 60 inches (1.8 meters) wide and a powerful digital imaging system that includes a 1,400-megapixel camera.

PS1 began searching for asteroids in May 2010. The telescope takes more than 500 photos of the sky every night, researchers said.

A NASA team and other dedicated astronomers routinely search for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a potential impact risk to Earth.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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