Astronomy and Astrophysics


MOUNTAIN VIEW – A six-week long research accelerator, championed by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist and hosted at the SETI Institute, is engaging young researchers from around the world to take on one of the truly existential threats to our species. 

FDL group photo

The NASA Frontier Development Lab (FDL) is bringing together a team of postgraduate researchers in data analytics and planetary science and challenging them to think outside the box on the threat of asteroid impacts.  The initiative is under the aegis of experts from the space agency and the SETI Institute, with deep-learning expertise contributed by NVIDIA and Autodesk.

Asteroids that collide with Earth are one cosmic danger that it’s now possible to mitigate. In 2013, NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge charged participants with identifying all possible asteroid threats, and determining what to do about them.  As part of the ongoing challenge, NASA engaged Trillium Technologies to devise a workshop to radically accelerate the development of new analytic tools to aid mitigation of a potential impact.  Trillium co-founder and Director, James Parr, describes the concept:

“Grand challenges, such as detecting and characterizing the potentially hazardous asteroids we can’t see, demand ingenious new applications of emerging technologies.  With FDL, we aimed to create a platform combining emerging talent in machine learning and planetary science to find genuinely new methodologies for planetary defense.” 

To this end, young researchers from around the world have gathered at the SETI Institute to brainstorm such matters as (1) new ways to visualize and characterize Near-earth Objects (NEO’s) considered to be potentially hazardous; (2) the benefits of future space missions to both discover and image these objects; (3) how we might better use radar to determine their size and shape, and (4) the possibility of designing specialized drones able to speed the search for landed meteorite fragments that are difficult and time-consuming to find.

“We are delighted to be hosting the FDL research accelerator and providing mentor support in asteroid studies,” notes Bill Diamond, SETI Institute CEO.  “This program, involving top postdoctoral researchers in deep learning and planetary science, has the potential to deliver groundbreaking results, and serve as a model for demonstrating the power of public/private partnerships.”

SETI Institute scientists specializing in asteroid and meteor research will be among the mentors for the Lab, as will other experts from NASA and industry.  These include the agency’s Deputy Chief Technologist, Jim Adams and its Chief Systems Engineer for the Space Portal Office at NASA Ames, Bruce Pittman.  Machine learning, a promising capability of today’s advanced computing technology, is expected to be a key tool in addressing the asteroid challenge. Alison B. Lowndes of NVIDIA and Jonathan Knowles of Autodesk are consulting advisors to FDL. 

“NVIDIA is allowing scientists to do their life’s work” notes Lowndes, NVIDIA’s Deep Learning Solutions Architect and Community Manager.  “Bringing together astrophysics, astrobiology and computer science is something I am immensely proud to do. It is a continuation of my mother’s work at the European Space Research and Technology Centre.”  NVIDIA specializes in visual computing, and produces graphics processing units that accelerate scientific computation and enable artificial intelligence techniques like deep learning. 

Apollo astronaut and B612 co-founder Rusty Schweickart will address FDL participants during the workshop. He will be joined by space industry pioneers including Rick Tumlinson and Daniel Faber of Deep Space Industries, and Chris Lewicki, founder and CEO of Planetary Resources.

In addition to its utility in coming up with breakthroughs to aid asteroid defense, the FDL Grand Challenge project will provide a meaningful research experience for young scientists and demonstrate the potential of the Frontier Development Lab approach for generating significant new ideas of value to NASA’s mission.

Surprise Meteor Shower on New Year's Eve

A new network of video surveillance cameras in New Zealand has detected a surprise meteor shower on New Year's Eve. The shower is called the Volantids, named after the constellation Volans, the flying fish, from which the meteoroids appear to stream towards us. 

Volantids meteor shower illustrationNew Year’s Eve meteor shower. Illustration: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute.

“In a way, the shower helped chase bad spirits away,” says SETI Institute meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens.  “Now we have an early warning that we should be looking for a potentially hazardous comet in that orbit.”

In September of 2014, Jenniskens teamed up with Professor Jack Baggaley of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, to establish a meteor video surveillance project in the southern hemisphere to find such warning signs of dangerous comets.  This project was similar to the existing Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance network (CAMS) in northern California. The CAMS network is sponsored by, and supports the goals of, the NASA Near Earth Object Observation program.

Now, 32 video cameras are spread over two stations on New Zealand’s South Island. Amateur meteor astronomers Peter Aldous at Geraldine and Ian Crumpton at West Melton are operating the stations. Data are submitted to the SETI Institute where Jenniskens calculates the meteoroid trajectories.

“New Zealand, lying between 35 and 47 degrees southern latitude, has a long tradition of meteor studies,” says Baggaley. “While radar observations in the past were efficient at observing sporadic meteors, the video cameras can see the meteor showers really well.”

Jenniskens and Baggaley describe the network and report on the new result in a paper submitted for publication in the Journal of the International Meteor Organization. The paper characterizes the trajectories of 21 Volantids measured on December 31, and two more on January 1. 

volantids Direction from which meteors approached us on December 31 (and next night).

“These were naked-eye meteors and rates peaked at the time of the local New Year’s Eve celebrations,” notes Jenniskens. “One out of three meteors that night came from this shower.”

The shower was not seen the year before and is not known from past radar observations. 

“A confined stream of dust particles must have been steered into Earth’s path for a brief moment,” says co-author and meteoroid stream dynamicist Rachel Soja of the University of Stuttgart, Germany, who calculated that the Earth will be safe from the comet and its debris in the near future.

The meteoroids move in a fairly steeply inclined orbit similar to that of some Jupiter-family type comets. 

“The parent body of this stream still eludes us,” says Soja. “It may not be active now and the high inclination may make it difficult to spot.”


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