UK schools help observe new asteroids

You know that saying about waiting for a bus, and then two come along at once…well, with a new research project being led by amateur astronomers in the UK and Italy, in this case it was 7…new asteroids

asteroid.jpgNick Howes, equipment consultant for UK Magazine Astronomy Now, has been using the twin 2m Faulkes telescopes for a few years on comet observation and measurement work, but in the past few months has teamed up with two of the world's leading amateur Italian astronomers, Giovanni Sostero and Ernesto Guido, experts in the area of comet recovery and NEO objects. Together with the Faulkes Telescope Team in Glamorgan, they have been working on an ongoing project to look at Near Earth Objects (NEOs) (read more about their work here).

“The NEO confirmation target list posted by the Minor Planet Centre each day, flags up new and interesting targets for follow on observations. Sometimes the orbits are unusual and it may transpire that the new object, which is usually detected on one of the large surveys like PAN STARRS, is a new comet. It is with instruments like Faulkes with its almost Hubble sized mirror, and its newly opened up SPECTRAL CCD that gives us the ability to detect and track targets that may show signs of a cometary coma down to magnitude 20-21. This is  what makes this program so powerful” says Nick. 

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It was in the past two weeks, during several observing runs on NEO targets, that the team detected potentially a total of seven completely new minor planets (the image on the right shows one of the fields imaged by the team showing multiple new and recovery/known targets).

"The first ones we found were in a serendipitous image of a known comet taken by a school in Israel, where we found three new asteroids...but since then, it's quite literally gone mad.." - quotes Nick.

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“We are working flat out to observe these targets, and with the generous support of LCOGT’s science team, who granted us rare access to the scopes over the weekend when science operations usually take precedence, that we were able to not only confirm these new objects, but also do valuable work in helping to constrain their orbits” continues Nick.

The Faulkes Telescope Team then sent out emails to all users on the telescopes asking them to take further follow-up images, and thanks to the extra observations taken by St Brigid's School (Denbigh), Hannah Blyth (St John's College student, Cardiff), and Chris O'Morain (Glamorgan University student) all the necessary data was obtained, enabling Nick and his team to submit their results to the Minor Planet Centre. 

“We submitted our results which show the objects to be real with well defined orbits in the main belt to the MPC over the weekend. This was only possible thanks to LCOGT permitting us access to the scopes during their science time and the extra images obtained by school and student telescope users across Wales”

“We were stunned when imaging two of the NEO targets from the IAU’s list, that we saw on two separate imaging runs, a total of 7 other objects moving in the fields we were imaging. When we ran their orbits through the MPC checker service provided by the IAU, it turned out that none of them were known bodies on that list. We’re using Astrometrica, along with the USNO-B1.0 star catalogue which are standards that Faulkes use regularly in many education projects to examine these targets. The orbits seem to indicate that they are almost all main belt objects, with one or two still undergoing analysis”

new_Ast_animationNH.gif(Click on animation to see it full screen).

Faulkes are placing these and other NEO target objects flagged by the team up on their daily interesting targets list, which is getting schools and students working with the telescopes involved in real scientific discovery. Nick continues. - “We’re excited by this program as to see something completely new moving in space is exciting not only for the professional astronomers, but also for students, and if they themselves get to find a new object, with proper submissions followed through, and logged, then eventually they may also be able to name the new asteroid, as occurred when a school in Wales named a new target some years ago after the famous Welsh region Snowdonia”

The team are awaiting the Harvard Minor Planet centre to assign official designations to some of the objects, but Nick and his team would sincerely like to thank St Brigid's School, St John's College and the University of Glamorgan for their support in assisting with follow on imaging and recovery of these objects.