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Using the best available telescopes, and assuming a typical albedo of 10%, at what distance can a 300m asteroid be seen (well enough to start plotting its course) in 1) visible and 2) infrared wavelengths?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

This isn't really an answer, but it got a bit involved to put in as a comment. Anyhow, the site is an absolute mine of information for this sort of thing. The best way to search it is using Google with searches like (in this case) "asteroid detection limits". For example this search found articles like and both of which discuss the detection limits in some detail. As you'd expect, it's quite complicated. For example an important factor is the speed of the asteroid as an apparently stationary asteroid can't be distinguished from a faint star.

According to those articles the limit of detection is about magnitude 20. If you have a look at this tells you how to convert magnitude to diameter and even includes a javascript calculator to do the calculation for you.

I feel as though I bang on about the NASA site quite a bit, but for all that NASA gets criticised they do an excellent job of making information public and it's always worth a quick search of their site. Of course, as a Brit it's not my tax paying for NASA; maybe that makes a difference :-)

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John, using your sites (detection limit 20, derived absolute magnitude ~6.5) and magnitude=absolute mag + 5log((earth dist)*(sun dist)) calculates the earth distance of a 300km asteroid to be about 1.4 AU. – Michael Luciuk Jun 3 '12 at 16:48
Big Typo! I meant 300m. – Michael Luciuk Jun 3 '12 at 19:09
Wow, I would have guessed a 300m asteroid would be easy to detect. In fact I was surprised enough by your result to spend a while Googling, and your result looks pretty good. Somewhere in the 100-300m range seems to be the current limit of detection. See for example – John Rennie Jun 4 '12 at 7:39

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