Advertisement
City

“I’m really into planetary defence”: Meet the 13-year-old whose science project could protect Earth from asteroids

Middle-schooler Arushi Nath created code that gathers crucial information about space rocks—it’s earned her six different awards. Next up, representing Canada at an international science competition

By Anthony Milton| Photography by Yasin Osman
“I’m really into planetary defence”: Meet the 13-year-old whose science project could protect Earth from asteroids

When NASA slammed a robotic probe into a small asteroid 11 million kilometres from Earth, Toronto middle-schooler Arushi Nath was watching—and she had a plan. By observing the asteroid before, during and after the collision, the Grade 8 student designed code that would take a simple telescope image of a space rock and spit out crucial information about it, with the goal of eventually providing planet-preserving factoids like whether it was going to hit Earth, and how best to knock it off its course. Her code has won her no less than six different awards and is now available open-source for anyone who wants to help save the world. Here, Nath tells us about her love of space, planetary defence, and the time she turned a science project into an award-winning musical.


How does a 13-year-old come to be studying and analyzing asteroids? I’ve been interested in astronomy for a long time now, since I was seven or eight. I’d spend hours looking at the night sky and attend presentations put on by the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada and use their telescope in Collingwood. It made me wonder if I could do astronomy myself and, since the best way to learn about something is to make a project, I started by looking at the colour of stars.

How old were you when you started writing algorithms? I’ve been coding since around the same time. At one point, I combined two different coding languages to create a program that could detect emotions based on the facial expressions of people standing in front of a camera, then make a robot respond accordingly.

What made you so interested in space? We don’t know much about it. Like, sure, we have telescopes and everything, but the sky is just so huge. I’m really interested in what could be out there.

Are you thinking aliens? It’s possible. We’ve seen other solar systems that look very similar to ours and could contain life. I think one day we might find higher life forms.

Do you have any space travel aspirations? I don’t think so. I wanted to when I was younger, but it takes a lot of effort and many years of training. These days, I’m more focused on seeing what I can do from the ground.

Last September, NASA’s DART mission slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if they could change its direction—and they succeeded. How did you get the idea to take the specs of the asteroid that NASA hit? I’ve really been into planetary defence, which is all about trying to protect the Earth from objects outside our atmosphere, like asteroids. It’s a very hot topic. We discover hundreds of asteroids every month and they do sometimes hit Earth. Sixty-six million years ago, a huge, 10-kilometre asteroid hit and wiped out the dinosaurs. Just last November, a one-metre asteroid fell harmlessly in Toronto after passing right by the CN Tower. It shows that the collision risk is real!

Advertisement

That’s pretty scary. Does it keep you up at night? It has. The chances are small, but it does happen. However, if we can discover and analyze all the near-Earth asteroids, we can know if one is on a collision course and when it might hit, which gives us time to prepare. So, I focused on finding unknown asteroids in the sky. We can only know if one is going to hit us if we know it exists, right? My project this year was a step forward from there: once we know about an asteroid, we need to be able to analyze it.

When NASA slammed a robotic probe into a small asteroid 11 million kilometres away from Earth, Toronto middle-schooler Arushi Nath was watching—and she had a plan. the Grade eight student designed code that would take a simple telescope image of a space rock and spit out crucial information about it. Now, she’ll be representing Canada at the EU Contest for Young Scientists.

How do you even do that? I knew that if I wanted to find the physical properties of an asteroid, I needed images of it. The asteroid that NASA hit, Dimorphos, was orbiting another larger one, Didymos. So, I had to take images of both, before, during and after the NASA impact. That was a steep learning curve. I wrote research proposals to telescopes located all around the world—Australia, Chile, Canada and the U.S.—to get observing time. I managed to access seven different telescopes, from which I took 55 hours’ worth of images. Then, I started thinking about how to analyze them. Among other things, I was able to measure the orbit of the smaller asteroid. I found that it sped up after NASA hit it, proving that the deflection was successful.

Let’s say an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. How would we use your algorithm to stop it? Our ultimate goal would be to knock it off its course, so that it actually misses. To do that, we would need to know everything about it: how fast it rotates, if it has a moon, what it’s made of, and so on. That’s what my algorithm can calculate. Then, we’d choose between two options. Either we hit it with a spacecraft to deflect it, or, if we still need more info, we send a spacecraft to orbit it—but that would only work if we have 30 or 40 years to prepare.

You’ve said that you want to “turn every citizen scientist into a planetary defender.” Yes. My goal is to get people around the world to use their own telescopes to analyze asteroids. The problem used to be that amateur astronomers and citizen scientists didn’t have a way to contribute to planetary defence. So, I’ve made my algorithms open-source to fix that.

I have to ask—when do you find time to do all this? Just after school hours.

Advertisement

Is this fun for you, or does it feel like work? Right now, it’s just for fun. I’m still in middle school, so I have a lot of time on my hands. I try to use it on stuff I’m really passionate about. I also play the piano, do water polo and rock climb. And I’m part of my school’s robotics club.

Do you ever mesh your other hobbies with the space stuff? Yes. I once turned the results of one of my experiments into a musical. In 2020, during the lockdowns, I put a scientific instrument on my balcony to measure light, sound and pollution before and after the pandemic. I ended up with several graphs and thought, Why not turn these into a musical? So, me and my brother got several musical instruments and played notes according to how high or low each point on the graph was. We actually submitted that to the NASA SpaceApps COVID-19 Challenge and became one of the top six global winners.

Do you think you’ll study space science at university when you’re older? I think so. Either aerospace or astrophysics, or maybe both.

Any other cool projects in the pipeline? Not right now, but I’m getting ready to go to Belgium this September, to represent Canada in the EU Contest for Young Scientists, which is an international science competition. I’ll be able to showcase this project there. But before then, I need to make a 10-page project report with figures, summaries and scientific documents. And I’ll need a poster!


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Advertisement

NEVER MISS A TORONTO LIFE STORY

Sign up for This City, our free newsletter about everything that matters right now in Toronto politics, sports, business, culture, society and more.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy.
You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Latest

Inside Toronto’s explosion of bad dogs and worse owners
Deep Dives

Inside Toronto’s explosion of bad dogs and worse owners