Asteroid impacts in the past have pushed Earth to the brink of extinction, wiping out the dinosaurs and two-thirds of life on the planet. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands have now bolstered Earth’s defences against space rock threats with the aid of “a fully connected artificial neural network”.

The asteroid detection system, dubbed the Hazardous Object Identifier (HOI), uses AI to determine which asteroids racing around the Sun could come crashing into Earth.

The system uses machine learning to analyse large asteroids and their trajectories at various points in time.

According to creators John D. Hefele, Francesco Bortolussi and Simon Portegies Zwart, HOI was able to identify more than 90 percent of the “potentially hazardous” asteroids tracked by NASA.

The Leiden scientists presented their detection system in a research paper, pre-published on the Cornell University archive server arXiv.

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The paper reads: “We designed, constructed, and trained a fairly simple neural network aimed at classifying asteroids with the potential to impact the Earth over the coming 20, 000 years.

“Our method takes the observed orbital elements as input and provides a classifier for the expectation value for the object’s striking Earth.

“The network was able pick out 95.25 percent of the known impactors (KIs) when mixed into a set of observed asteroids which are not expected to strike Earth.”

According to the US space agency NASA, asteroids are considered “potentially hazardous” when they meet certain size and orbit criteria.

Potentially hazardous asteroids or PHAs are almost 500ft (150m) or wider and approach Earth from a distance of less than 4.6 million miles (7.5 million km).

Potentially hazardous comets also get unusually close to Earth

NASA

Although there is no comet or asteroid currently known to be headed directly at Earth, the gravitational effects of other bodies in the solar system can influence the trajectories of space rocks.

In time, an asteroid considered safe could be nudged into an orbit that will directly cross paths with our homeworld.

NASA said: “Potentially hazardous comets also get unusually close to Earth.

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“Knowing the size, shape, mass, composition and structure of these objects helps determine the best way to divert one, should it have an Earth-threatening path.”

NASA keeps a watchful eye on the night skies with its Sentry Earth Impact Monitoring System.

Sentry falls under NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

But the researchers at Leiden believe more effort needs to be put into keeping Earth out of harm’s way.

NASA’s systems predict impactors years in advance, which could give ample time to stick the asteroid with nuclear warheads or to deflect it away from Earth.

Leiden’s scientists wrote in their study: “In 1990 the US Congress requested for NASA to establish two workshops to focus on the identification of potentially hazardous small bodies and on methods of altering their orbits to prevent impact.

“The workshops led to the establishment of the Sentry earth impact monitoring system.

“If a hazardous asteroid is identified early enough prior to impact, it would be possible to mitigate the impact by means of an appropriate space mission to alter the asteroid’s orbit through a gravitational tugboat or by obliterating it with a nuclear warhead

“Both mitigation strategies require many years of preparation, which makes the early detection of hazardous objects vital for allowing ample time to prepare such missions.”

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