The SUNSET Collaboration: Enhancing Planetary Defense through Advanced SNEO Detection


Congratulations to Joe DeMartini, the 2024 Schweickart Prize awardee, for his innovative proposal, "The Sunward NEO Surveillance and Early Twilight Detection (SUNSET) Collaboration." This project aims to address the critical challenge of detecting Sunward Near-Earth Objects (SNEOs), which pose a significant threat due to their difficult-to-observe orbits and potentially short warning times before impact.

About Joe DeMartini

Joe DeMartini has been working with Professor Derek Richardson at the University of Maryland since 2015, initially embarking on directed research as an undergraduate to simulate granular material (e.g., sand/gravel) dynamics on asteroids. Graduating in 2018 with a BS in Astronomy with High Honors for his proof-of-concept study for a SmallSat mission to place a seismometer on Asteroid 99942 Apophis, he remained at the University of Maryland for his Ph.D studies. His work, presented at various conferences, includes significant advancements in the realism of low-gravity granular flow simulations and our understanding of asteroid surfaces. After earning an M.Sc in 2020, he has received multiple fellowships including a Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Sciences and Technology 3-year Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Fellowship for combined laboratory and simulation work in France, taken at ISAE-SUPAERO in Toulouse with Dr. Naomi Murdoch. His research has been published and presented at international workshops and conferences, and he has mentored several students, highlighting his aspirations to become a university professor and his commitment to fostering the next generation of scientists.

The Sunward NEO Surveillance and Early Twilight Detection (SUNSET) Collaboration

SNEOs are a particularly high-risk subset of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that approach Earth from the direction of the Sun, making them challenging to detect with conventional observation methods. These objects often remain undetected until they are very close to Earth, as exemplified by the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013, which caused significant damage and injuries. The SUNSET Collaboration seeks to enhance the detection and characterization of these elusive objects, thereby improving our ability to predict and mitigate potential impacts.

DeMartini's proposal leverages the unique capabilities of twilight observations, conducted during the brief periods when the Sun is just below the horizon. These observations allow astronomers to look toward the Sun while mitigating contamination from the Sun's brightness, allowing for the detection of SNEOs that would otherwise be missed. The proposal outlines the use of the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory for discovery, supplemented by medium and small ground-based observatories for follow-up studies.

The SUNSET Collaboration emphasizes the importance of community support and technological integration. DeMartini proposes organizing a network of twilight-capable telescopes to conduct follow-up observations and confirm discoveries made by the Rubin Observatory. Additionally, the project aims to incorporate advanced software algorithms, such as HelioLinC3D and THOR, to improve the efficiency and accuracy of orbit determinations from disparate data sets.

In the long term, the SUNSET Collaboration envisions the establishment of a space-based discovery and early-warning system for NEOs. This system would utilize multiple satellites to enhance the detection capabilities for SNEOs and provide seamless, automatic follow-ups.

The SUNSET Collaboration represents important contributions towards the advancement in planetary defense, prioritizing the discovery and characterization of Sunward NEOs to enhance Earth's safety from potential impacts. By fostering community involvement and leveraging cutting-edge technology, Joe DeMartini's proposal aims to fill critical knowledge gaps and improve early warning times, ultimately contributing to the global effort to protect our planet from hazardous asteroids.

To read DeMartini’s proposal in full, click here.