It’s only a matter of time before another planet-killing asteroid heads our way. Fear-mongering this isn’t—the long-term odds are not in our favor.
We will only be prepared if we can see the next one coming. To that end, scientists have been tracking hundreds of thousands of asteroids careening through our solar system to give us as much time as we can get. Self-proclaimed “astronogamer” Scott Manley has taken this data available from the Minor Planet Center (MPC) and wrote his own code to create an astonishing visualization of over 600,000 objects discovered by various telescopes and probes in the last 30 years. It’s incredible to watch (and available in 4K!).
Manley told me in an email that the original file has 5,400 frames and totals over 40 gigabytes. If your screen can handle it, the 4K display scales to 500,000 kilometers of space per pixel, Manley explained. At that scale, the Earth and Moon occupies just one pixel. The pulses of objects discovered in the video isn’t just a visual effect either. “I’m adding the flash to the new objects so you can see roughly where they were when they were discovered, so you can see the observation patterns—most of the discoveries take place while looking away from the sun,” Manley said.
You can learn even more about how our efforts to detect asteroids have evolved by following these flashes, Manley told me. “A fine example being about the 5 second mark where you can see a lot of discoveries roughly aligned between Earth and Jupiter. This was because the Voyager probes had visited Jupiter the year before and found a lot of new moons, so observers were making follow up observations to get more accurate orbits and in so doing they found a lot of asteroids that just happened to be lined up with the planet.”
Data from the Minor Planet Center isn’t just pretty; it’s vital. The MPC is the organization responsible for altering the planet to the risk of near-earth objects that could eventually smash into us. Every day, NASA updates a running list of asteroids that get close (by astronomical standards). Those kinds of close calls are hard to see in a beautiful video like Manley’s.
Kyle Hill is the Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.