In the past several years there has been a very noticeable uptick in certain astronomical events – namely the ‘fireball meteors,’ or bolides, that have been bursting through the skies around the world in spectacular fashion.

Scientists are paying attention.  Efforts are now under way to predict meteor activity and to study the effects thereof using the some of the latest Big Data technologies.  Numerous factors are driving these efforts; for example, some scientists want to be able to predict meteor showers and learn more about the origins and makeup of our solar system, others want to be able to recover meteorite fragments by tracking the trajectory of incoming meteors and still others want an early warning and detection system in order to somehow dodge or thwart the potential devastation that may result from a very large meteor object, usually defined as something 50 meters or more in diameter.

A fascinating article by Sedeer el-Showk titled Introducing the Global Effort to Map the Night Sky describes how Big Data technologies are being used to bring meteor activity into sharp focus:  “Identifying and tracking the meteor streams that pass near Earth’s orbit requires a global effort.  Though each station can only monitor the sky during the local night, astronomers can piece together a complete picture by analyzing the combined data from the entire network. That’s important because mapping meteor showers isn’t just a way of getting to know our neighborhood. It also provides clues to help identify the parent body—the comet or asteroid that spawned the shower—offering researchers a rare glimpse into the earliest history of our solar system.”

The sheer vastness involved in mapping and imaging sections of outer space and crunching all of the numerical data related to time and location of meteor events calls for the use of huge computing power.  “Finding them (meteors) requires an automatic search for meteors in large astronomical databases,” according to an article by Vinković, D., Gritsevich, M., Srećković, V., Pečnik, B., Szabó, G., Debattista, V., titled Big Data Era in Meteor Science.  What it comes down to is that “a small number of events has to be detected within terabytes or petabytes of imaging data,” requiring the use of Big Data methodologies.

What about the big events that may pose a danger to mankind?  The application of Big Data-driven science methodologies can be of huge help.  “There are lots of mathematical problems where supplying more data improves the accuracy of the result in a fairly predictable way. If you want to predict the course of an asteroid, you need to measure its velocity and its position, as well as the gravitational effects of the objects in its astronomical neighborhood. The more measurements you can make of the asteroid and the more precise those measurements are, the better you’re going to do at pinning down its track,” according to an article by Jordan Ellenberg titled What’s Even Creepier Than Target Guessing That You’re Pregnant?

Lately, there have been numerous stories in the news about surprise events – asteroids suddenly appearing close to Earth and whizzing by at phenomenal speeds, sometimes at well over 50,000 kilometers per hour.  Some of these objects are 1,000 meters in diameter or more.  The Big Data technologies now being applied may offer a hope of detecting and deflecting or destroying these dangerous objects before they hit planet Earth.  How so?  “Machine learning has also proved incredibly useful in solving the third problem — that of working out how to deflect a PHA (Potentially Hazardous Asteroid). Up until now, only limited orbital models have been used to estimate what the best method is to stop it.  That could be blasting it with a nuclear bomb, smacking it off course by crashing a probe into it, or simply attaching an engine to it and driving it out of harm’s way. To improve on that, the FDL built an analysis model using machine learning to crank out over 800,000 simulated orbits, a huge improvement in modeling complexity,” according to an article by Ian Steadman titled A.I. is Defending the Earth from Asteroids.

The recent major increase in fireballs and NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) will put at least some of these technologies to the test.  For instance, it will be fascinating to see how precisely and accurately measured the next major newly-discovered NEO will be in terms of size, velocity, and trajectory.  Heads up!

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