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Telescope Establishes Near-Earth Asteroid Discovery Record

Posted on | February 25, 2011 | Comments Off

Wainscoat and Micheli at computer

Richard Wainscoat, left, and Marco Micheli study one of the near-Earth asteroids found on Jan. 29.

The Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope on Haleakalā discovered 19 near-Earth asteroids, the most asteroids discovered by one telescope on a single night. Pan-STARRS Software Engineer Larry Denneau spent Jan. 29 processing the PS1 data as it was transmitted from the telescope and came up with 30 possible new near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroids are discovered because they appear to move against the background of stars. To confirm asteroid discoveries, scientists must carefully re-observe them several times within 12–72 hours to define their orbits, otherwise they are likely to be lost.

Denneau and colleagues quickly sent their discoveries to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which collects and disseminates data about asteroids and comets, so that other astronomers can re-observe the objects.

“Usually there are several mainland observatories that would help us confirm our discoveries, but widespread snowstorms there closed down many of them, so we had to scramble to confirm many of the discoveries ourselves,” noted Institute for Astronomy Specialist Richard Wainscoat.

Wainscoat, Astronomer David Tholen, and graduate student Marco Micheli spent the next three nights searching for the asteroids using telescopes at Mauna Kea Observatories. On Jan. 30, they confirmed that two of the asteroids were near-Earth asteroids before snow on Mauna Kea forced the telescopes to close. On Jan.31 they confirmed nine more before fog set in and on Feb. 1 they searched for four, but found only one. After Feb. 1, the remaining unconfirmed near-Earth asteroids had moved too far to be found again.

Two of the asteroids, it turns out, have orbits that come extremely close to Earth’s. There is no immediate danger, but a collision in the next century or so, while unlikely, cannot yet be ruled out. Astronomers will be paying close attention to these objects.

Read the news release.

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