A student studying astronomy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo discovered a new object in the solar system while completing an internship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
The minor planet, discovered by Kyle Steckler, is technically classified as a centaur, a subclass of trans-Neptunian objects (TNO) or minor planets that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.
“Centaurs are interesting in that they spend part of their orbit outside of Neptune, but then actually cross the orbit of Neptune and spend some time inside its orbit,” said Steckler. “This object is likely 35 to 60 kilometers in diameter and about 20 times more distant than Earth from the sun.”
Steckler’s internship was through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, a U.S. National Science Foundation program that allows undergraduates to take part in active research over the summer.
“I spent pretty much the entire summer developing an algorithm to discover TNOs or minor planets using data from the Dark Energy Survey,” said Steckler. The Dark Energy Survey uses the 4-meter Blanco telescope at Cerro Tololo in Chile to survey visible and near-infrared light with the goal of probing the dynamics of the expansion of the universe.
Steckler discovered his TNO by developing algorithms that utilized machine learning to detect distant objects in the Dark Energy Survey data.
“The algorithm didn’t fully work all summer and I wasn’t discovering anything new,” said Steckler. “I discovered a bunch of TNOs but they were ones that had been discovered with previous methods. About three hours before I gave my final presentation at the symposium in Ann Arbor, I was running my software and it popped up and said, ‘Hey, I found something new!’ So I had to modify my presentation at the last minute.”
—A UH Hilo Stories article written by Leah Sherwood a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo