One day in 2013, shortly after dawn broke over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, a violent explosion in the air above the town caused a flash as bright as the sun, a shockwave that injured more than a thousand people and extensive damage to property. A single large meteoroid had entered the Earth’s atmosphere, where it exploded with a force of around 30 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.
Protecting against such hazards begins with monitoring these objects to calculate their precise orbits. We met Dr Gulchehra Kokhirova, Director of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan in Dushanbe, to learn more about the worldwide efforts to track and study them and about the role R&E networks can play in facilitating such endeavours.
Please outline briefly the focus of your research.
The Chelyabinsk meteoroid was one of around 14,000 known ‘near-Earth asteroids’, of which some 1,700 are classified as ‘potentially hazardous asteroids’ (PHA). In other words, objects that represent a real danger to the entire biosphere and all human activity. This meteoroid’s diameter was 17m; we know of at least one PHA – called Apophis – due to make a close approach to Earth in 2029 that is about twenty times bigger. And last April, an asteroid roughly the size of the Rock of Gibraltar whizzed past the Earth in one of the closest encounters the planet has had in over a decade – at a distance of just over a million miles which is far enough away to be safe but uncomfortably close in astronomical terms.
These PHAs are the objects of my research. The aim is to track their orbits and study their properties to devise mitigation strategies for a potential impact. With our observations we contribute to the data held by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre (MPC) in the USA – which is the global focus for all information about the positions of the PHAs we monitor.
What are the challenges you face in terms of effectively collaborating with partners around the world?
For the observations we rely on powerful telescopes. To minimise the effects of light pollution, the telescopes need to be sited well away from population centres; they are located in Tajikistan’s mountainous regions – one in Gissar (730 m), and in Sanglokh (2300 m). However, the necessary remoteness of these locations creates a problem: transferring the huge volume of observation data to our Institute’s facility in Dushanbe. For the time being we have to transfer the data manually on USB sticks. However, thanks to the recent connection of our Institute to the TARENA network we are now able to reliably and speedily transmit and receive large datasets to and from the MPC in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Also, thanks to the good internet connection we can now effectively access and feed into the master database of the MCP which keeps the research community abreast of important developments and discoveries via daily electronic circulars. In other words: our observational data now become known to the international astronomical community very quickly which, in turn, increases the international reputation of our Institute.
How did you hear about the TARENA and CAREN network?
I first heard about the TARENA network when, several years ago, various research institutes of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences were connected to the internet for the first time – via TARENA. I learned about the CAREN network by attending a CAREN workshop organised in Dushanbe two years ago. I subsequently gave a presentation at the second TARENA-CAREN workshop last year in Dushanbe and was also a speaker at the 2nd CAREN Regional Networking Conference (CRNC 2017) last April in Bishkek. The benefits of these networks are obvious: instant access to international databases, online exchange and discussion with colleagues, submission of observations results and papers for publications in professional journals. This undoubtedly catalyzes the international rating of our Institute as well as of the Tajik astronomy community at large.
What are the plans for the future?
Work is currently underway to also connect the telescopes to TARENA. This will complete the picture: a fast, seamless and reliable real-time link between telescopes in our mountains and scientists at our Institute in Dushanbe, the USA and other parts of the world. This, in turn, will also enable us to operate these telescopes remotely from our facilities in Dushanbe.
Click here to find out more about how CAREN empowers researchers in Central Asia.