Research faces worst-case asteroid scenario
Although Leonardo DiCaprio's recent film “Don’t Look Up” is a comedy, there’s nothing funny about the work of aerospace engineers who study the real possibility of a comet or asteroid striking Earth, such as the one that is widely considered to be the primary factor in the sudden mass extinction of dinosaurs.
“Given the enormous number of asteroids and comets in the Solar System, there is a risk of an impact that could be devastating to life on Earth,” said Andrew Koehler, BS ’18 and currently an aerospace engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Although such an event is extraordinarily rare, the possibility exists for there to be another asteroid of sufficient size to cause catastrophic damage to Earth. Because of that possibility, it’s important to be vigilant about discovering and tracking asteroids and comets to determine if they are on an Earth-impacting trajectory.”
Koehler recently won an award from the International Academy of Astronautics to further his work on a research project entitled “Swarm Intelligence Algorithms Applied to Asteroid Impact Probability.” The award includes a travel allowance toward his attendance at the 2023 Planetary Defense Conference.
“The research aims to answer a fundamental question about potentially hazardous objects,” Koehler said. “Given the best orbit determination solution—a state and uncertainty at a specific time—what is the closest that the asteroid will get to the Earth when the orbit is propagated forward in time?”
Koehler said running the current simulation method with millions of samples, the Monte Carlo method, is a computationally expensive process. He hopes the method he is working on will be an improvement.
“Our method contributes to the global planetary defense effort by accurately and efficiently predicting the worst-case scenario for a given potentially hazardous object,” said Koehler’s faculty mentor Bruce Conway. “This method can be applied to other problems that are currently analyzed via statistical methods but would be better posed as optimization problems.”
Koehler already has professional experience as a spacecraft mission designer and navigator at NASA Goddard, NASA Ames, and Advanced Space, LLC.