Schoolgirl makes new discoveries with the FTs!

A 6th form student from Cardiff, working on a summer work experience project at the University of Glamorgan, has helped astronomers discover over 20 new asteroids and a comet in the process of breaking up.

213P_001.pngThe “broken comet” (shown on the left here) was spotted in images taken by 18-year old school student Hannah Blyth of St Johns College, Cardiff, whilst working on a Nuffield Foundation summer programme at the Faulkes Telescope Project at Glamorgan. Hannah was imaging Comet 213P Van Ness as part of a project being coordinated by UK astronomer Nick Howes, and two of the world's leading comet and asteroid imagers, Italians Giovanni Sostero and Ernesto Guido.

For the second time in just over a year, observations involving Howes and the Faulkes team have detected the fragmentation of a comet nucleus. For an amateur to be involved in a discovery like this is highly unusual, but the fact that the images were obtained by a school student makes this even more remarkable.

Comets are giant ice balls, usually found at the very outer edges of our Solar system. If they are dislodged from their distant orbits and fall towards the Sun, they can develop enormous tails of dust and ice particles. Sometimes, the main ice ball (nucleus) of the comet can fragment, leading to huge chunks of icy material

“As soon as we saw the images, we knew something had kicked off in the comet's tail” said Nick, “We were frantically communicating with each other over Twitter, e-mail and Facebook, just staggered with the huge fragment we were seeing drifting back along the comet's tail”.

Initially the team were working on studying two new asteroids which Hannah single-handedly discovered. “I was not really expecting to be involved with the asteroid project so much, never mind expecting to find new ones – and it was quite a rush, to tell the truth,” she commented. “It was an extremely exciting moment when we discovered the asteroids, and something to remember. I’m very proud of the fact that I was part of something like that, I had a lot of fun.”

But once Hannah started imaging the comet, the discovery that it was fragmenting made the team drop even the exciting observations of new asteroids to focus on studying this uncommon event.

“It’s amazing to be involved in something like this. I was busy carrying out observations for Nick and almost cut short the sequence of images of this particular comet as he had sent me another target to look at – I’m glad I didn’t change my plans!” said Hannah.

“This project, which we decided to squeeze in to the normally quiet summer months when the telescopes are not being used by schools, has been an amazing success”, says Dr Paul Roche, the head of astronomy at Glamorgan and Space Ambassador for Wales, “We had hoped to find maybe 1 or 2 new asteroids, but Nick, Giovanni and Ernesto have turned up far more than that already, and Hannah’s observations of the comet fragmentation are really the icing on the cake”.

hannah1.jpgThis latest result comes as part of an extraordinarily successful pilot project to use the Faulkes Telescopes to try and discover new asteroids (such as the very faint one shown in the image here to the right). Howes and his team have discovered an amazing 23 new asteroids in the past month alone. The team are now urgently working on follow-up observations of the comet, and have filed their data with the Harvard Minor Planet Centre for further analysis. 

"This discovery again shows that amateur astronomers, and school students, can make a huge contribution to real scientific discovery" added Nick.

As well as the asteroid and comet research projects, the Faulkes Telescopes have also been used in recent weeks by comedian Dara O’Briain and The One Show’s resident astronomer, Mark Thompson, in an innovative Twitter-based project co-ordinated by Dr Edward Gomez at Cardiff University. They will return to the regular schools programme once term starts in early September, allowing even more students to help make real discoveries as part of their science studies.

The Faulkes Telescope Project is based at the University of Glamorgan, and has access to two 2-metre remotely-controlled telescopes located in Hawaii and Australia, which are managed and operated by the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) network in Santa Barbara, USA.

All images obtained By H Blyth/N Howes, using the FT North and South instruments, operated by LCOGT, USA.