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Telescope camera boosts asteroid sightings in Tucson

Associated Press

Tucson, Ariz. — A customized telescope camera near Tucson is playing an important role in discovering asteroids and other objects zipping by Earth.

Upgrades helped the Catalina Sky Survey record 924 of the sightings in 2016, reported the Arizona Daily Star.

No other survey has spotted as many, according to Lindley Johnson, who leads NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

NASA’s planetary defense office is looking to find 90 percent of objects at least 140 meters in size near Earth.

Co-investigator Steve Larson designed the new $500,000 cameras for two telescopes. He said that while he suspected they would help, he was surprised by the results after the first camera was commissioned.

“It tripled our average rate of discoveries,” he said. “It was startling to us that it worked so well.”

The second camera recently spotted its first asteroid.

In addition to the cameras, the survey also refurbished a telescope to help follow up on sightings.

Principal investigator Eric Christensen says objects in space can cause various degrees of damage when they hit Earth, depending on their size.

Collisions can happen “on the time scale of tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of years,” he said.

The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory runs the survey.

Christensen said its 11 employees are paid from a $1.7 million annual NASA budget.