‘It could be lifesaving': UCF teams with NASA for killer asteroid detection project

VIDEO: UCF, Puerto Rico tram up to help save planet

ORLANDO, Fla. — NASA, the University of Central Florida, and Puerto Rico are all teaming up to help find asteroids that could kill tens of millions of people.

"NEO stands for near-Earth object," said UCF astronomy professor Dr. Yan Fernandez. "It's on the order of 10,000 that we know about."

Fernandez is part of the four-year mission to observe and characterize those objects that pose a potential hazard to the earth and could also be future candidates for space missions.

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To find these NEOs, UCF will use its newest observatory, Arecibo in Puerto Rico.

"We will be able to help know what is really the hazard in the asteroid environment out there in space and the fact UCF can contribute to that is tremendously gratifying," Fernandez said.

UCF took over Arecibo in 2018. It's perfectly suited for this, since it has the most sensitive planetary radar system in the world.

NASA is giving UCF $19 million for the search mission. The hunt though, will be hard.

NASA has been directed to find 90 percent of world-ending asteroids by 2020, but that's a deadline they may miss because of funding cuts.

And to give you an idea of how big a problem this is, every year there is a Hiroshima level asteroid explosion somewhere in the Earth's atmosphere.

Given the size of the problem, UCF is becoming NASA's go-to school of choice for asteroids.

"It's great for UCF, great for us as scientists. We feel like we're doing not just an academic experience and studying rocks in the stars," Fernandez said. "It could be lifesaving."

UCF and its colleagues in Puerto Rico will spend 800 hours a year using the telescope searching for planet killers.

As part of the project, 30 STEM high school students will also be part of the research through science classes for a semester at the observatory.