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On the Prowl for Asteroids: NASA Grant Upgrades Sky Survey

Newly upgraded eyes are going to be scoping out the heavens, on the prowl for asteroids that might cross the Earth’s path someday.

NASA is awarding $4.1 million to the Catalina Sky Survey — or CSS — a University of Arizona-based program. The money will used to upgrade and operate the CSS telescopes through 2015.

With their new NASA grant, CSS astronomers will be able to expand the power of their largest telescope four-fold, develop more sensitive software, and conduct their search more nights every month.

The CSS program is part of the university’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. It has led the search for so-called near-Earth objects, or NEOs, since 2005.

CSS consists of two wide-field survey telescopes and a dedicated follow-up telescope located in the Catalina mountains north of Tucson, Arizona.

In 2011, the CSS science team discovered 586 near-Earth asteroids, representing 65 percent of NEO discoveries for the year. In addition to its record-setting searches for asteroids, the team was the first to observe an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth, allowing it to be tracked and eventually recovered as meteorites in the desert of Northern Sudan.

In a press statement, Edward Beshore, principal investigator of the Catalina Sky Survey, welcomed the new NASA grant:

“Aside from helping to ensure that we don’t get blindsided by an asteroid, we owe the public the most efficient use of our funding, and we are grateful that we have once again been given the chance to show the world what we can do.”

Photo shows the Schmidt Telescope located on Mt. Bigelow in the Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson, Ariz. one of the instruments used to detect asteroids that could pose a hazard to Earth. (Photo credit: Catalina Sky Survey)

By Leonard David

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