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Astronomers Need Help Finding Asteroids Hurtling Through Our Solar System

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The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory has created an online portal as part of the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey, allowing the public to assist in identifying asteroids and comets. By creating an account on Zooniverse, users can scrutinize telescope images for potential celestial bodies, adding human insight to automated detection systems and aiding in the discovery of near-Earth objects.

 

Anyone with an internet connection can now join University of Arizona researchers as they work to discover asteroids hurtling through our solar system.

Anyone can become an asteroid hunter thanks to a new program launched by astronomers at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. As part of the <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

NASA
Established in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is &quot;To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.&quot; Its core values are &quot;safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion.&quot; NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey, the scientists created an online portal that opens their mission – the discovery and identification of space rocks that regularly visit Earth’s neighborhood – to the general public.

 

While gazing up at the night sky with the naked eye, one might see stars, planets and the occasional airplane. What one usually won’t see, however, are asteroids and comets – lumps of rock tumbling through space – left over from the formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Because of their origin, these space objects might hold clues about the formation of the sun and planets, scientists believe.

Through the new portal, scientists from the Catalina Sky Survey will share potential asteroid and comet detections from their ground-based telescopes with anyone with an internet connection. Even amateurs can help scientists find unknown objects in the solar system as they click through and pore over high-resolution, telescope snapshots of the sky that scientists haven’t been able to look at.

“I thought it would be great if people could do what we do every night,” said Carson Fuls, a science engineering specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey who heads the project. “We see this website as throwing open the doors: Do you want to look for asteroids, too? If so, come on in.”

 

Asteroid 1998 OR2

Artist’s impression of a near-Earth object in space. NASA is on the lookout for near-Earth objects – neighboring asteroids and comets – that could possibly impact Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

To begin asteroid hunting, participants must create an account on Zooniverse, an online platform for people-powered research. Through the website, volunteers without any specialized training or expertise assist professional researchers from various fields. In the case of the public asteroid detection portal, a basic tutorial will have participants picking out moving asteroids from pictures in no time.

Participants look at sets of images of the night sky taken by one of the Catalina Sky Survey telescopes. Each image set contains four exposures taken six or seven minutes apart. The pictures are noteworthy because software spotted a moving speck of light from one image to the next, which may or may not represent the light reflected from a faraway comet or asteroid.

The task for the amateur asteroid hunter: Decide if the identified speck of light in the images looks like a genuine celestial body or, rather, is a false detection resulting from inconveniently timed “twinkles” of the star-studded background, dust on the telescope mirror or other causes. After answering by clicking a “yes” or “no” button, the participant can either write a comment or move on to the next detection.

 

It is not necessary that people know the correct answer every time, said Catalina Sky Survey director Eric Christensen. Rather, the system relies on strength in numbers.

“With enough people participating, you can establish a general consensus, so there’s less margin of error,” Christensen said.

Near-Earth Asteroids Discovered

Graph showing the amount of near-Earth asteroids discovered over time. Most notably, the current total of almost 32,000 asteroids is at least triple the amount that had been detected ten years ago. Catalina Sky Survey alone has discovered over 14,400 near-Earth asteroids, including 1,200 in the past year. Credit: Alan Chamberlin/JPL-Caltech

 

The Catalina Sky Survey operates up to five large, powerful telescopes each night in their quest to keep track of over 1 million lumps of flying rock with diameters ranging from the length of a school bus to the width of Arizona. Initially, the images in the portal will come from their G96 telescope atop Mount Lemmon, just north of Tucson. The diameter of the telescope’s primary mirror is approximately 5 feet, and it can usually survey the whole Northern Hemisphere night sky in about a month.

 

“The number of asteroids we detect per night with our telescope really depends on the weather or where we are in the lunar calendar,” Christensen said. “On clear nights, the database matches tens of thousands of candidates to known asteroids based on their motion, speed and position in the sky.”

While the lab’s software detects and records all asteroid sightings, Catalina Sky Survey is a NASA-funded project with the mission of specifically tracking and discovering near-Earth objects, or NEOs. NEOs are asteroids that have strayed from the flock of space rocks plodding around the sun in the asteroid belt between <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

Mars
Mars is the second smallest planet in our solar system and the fourth planet from the sun. It is a dusty, cold, desert world with a very thin atmosphere. Iron oxide is prevalent in Mars’ surface resulting in its reddish color and its nickname &quot;The Red Planet.&quot; Mars’ name comes from the Roman god of war.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Mars and <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”

Jupiter
Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and the fifth planet from the sun. It is a gas giant with a mass greater then all of the other planets combined. Its name comes from the Roman god Jupiter.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Jupiter. Their new orbits take them much closer to Earth, and some pose a potential threat if their orbit crosses that of Earth.

More than 14,400 NEOs in the past 30 years – almost half of the entire known population of nearly 32,000 – have been discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey. Of those, 1,200 were found just in the past year.

“We are most interested in candidates that are moving fast with an unknown identity because they are most likely to be NEOs,” Fuls said. “Because NEOs are closer to us, they appear to move faster and in somewhat random directions from our viewpoint compared to main belt asteroids.”

 

The process of spotting a new NEO and reporting it is time-sensitive, and astronomers can lose track of them if there is no immediate follow-up on their discovery. That’s because NEOs have highly elliptical orbits that only bring them close to Earth every three or four years. Plus, some smaller NEOs can only be detected if they are passing near Earth.

“NEOs move so erratically that it’s easy to miss them,” Christensen said. “We try not to filter out false detections too aggressively because this could also filter out some NEOs.”

Currently, the asteroid-tracking telescope on Mount Lemmon is set up to take about 1,000 images per night. Afterward, sensitive software ranks detected moving objects from most to least likely to be an asteroid. The final step is for a human observer to analyze the detections that the software identified.

“A human can only process so many images a night,” said Fuls, explaining that while the software flags many possible objects, the researchers don’t have the time and resources to look through everything that was picked up. “We are missing a certain number of objects because they simply didn’t rank high enough in the algorithm.”

 

That is where a Zooniverse account comes in handy, as “citizen scientists” peek through sky photos that the software flagged but weren’t obvious enough to make the cut. For each set of images, a participant must decide: Did the software pick up on a never-before-seen space object or did it just get confused by the flickering stars?

Already, three citizen scientists have discovered 64 possible candidates for unknown asteroids during the testing phase of the web portal.

“We’ve sent these detections off to the Minor Planet Center as potential new discoveries, and most of these objects have not yet been linked to any object that has been detected before,” Fuls said. “We anticipate that there will be many more discoveries like that going forward.”

The Catalina Sky Survey astronomers plan to release new data into the interface every day after their scheduled nighttime viewing session.

 

“The observations made by these citizen scientists may not always be of a never-before-detected object,” Christensen said. “But they may still be key observations that allow the Minor Planet Center to nail down the identity of something that, until now, was just a candidate.”

To keep prospective asteroid hunters on their toes, Fuls said, he and his colleagues will throw pictures of already known objects into the mix to test people’s ability to identify real objects and keep them engaged.

“Even when you’re at the telescope, you perk up when you see one of those,” Fuls said. “You don’t want it to be mindless and boring.”

 

 

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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky

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Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride

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The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.

 

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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park

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Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”

 

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