Bruce BettsMar 18, 2010

Updates on Shoemaker NEO Grant Recipients (18 March 2010)

Our past Shoemaker NEO grant recipients have once again shown themselves to be a hardworking and enterprising group. Making the best use of modest resources these so called “amateurs” prove year after year that they can hold their own with the very best professional observatories.

Take for example Robert Holmes of the Astronomical Research Institute (ARI) in Charleston, Illinois, who has won a Shoemaker NEO grant in both 2007 and 2009. With the grant money Holmes purchased two CCD cameras and installed them on the telescopes he uses to track Near Earth Objects. The results were immediate and remarkable: Over the 2009 calendar year, the first camera took an astounding 121,097 images of NEO’s, and the second camera, which became operational only in December, already took 8,542 images. Overall, under Holmes’ direction, ARI has made nearly 8,000 targeted observations of NEO’s in 2009, more than any other observatory in the world!

Holmes is also using the grant money to spread the word about NEO’s beyond the bounds of the astronomical community. The images taken with the two Planetary Society cameras are uploaded onto the web and made available for study to high school and college students around the world through the Killer Asteroid Project. Last February Holmes and his fellows at ARI joined with the Science Museum in Tokyo to present a live NEO show at the museum’s planetarium. Live images of NEO 2009 FY4 taken by one of the Planetary Society cameras were projected onto the Planetarium’s dome, allowing the audience to track its movement through the sky in real time.

Herman Mikuz of the Crni Vrh Observatory in Slovenia received a Shoemaker NEO grant back in 2000, and used it to purchase a 0.60 meter sky survey telescope. Using this equipment, Mikuz and his colleagues discovered 4 previously unknown NEO’s in 2009, designated 2009 CN5, 2009 CT5, 2009 DL1, and 2009 QO. The first of these, 2009 CN5 is particularly significant because its orbit makes it a PHA – a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA) that could one day collide with Earth.

Russell Durkee used his 2009 Shoemaker NEO grant to fully automate the NEO observations at his Shed of Science Observatory in Minneapolis. “Installation of the observatory PC, roof control circuitry, cloud sensor, and software began in May of 2009” he wrote us recently, “and by late June the observatory was operating nearly autonomously.” Thanks to the automation Durkee has been able to more than triple the number of observation nights at the Shed of Science Observatory.

The observatory’s increased productivity was evident immediately. In late June, 2009, Durkee took photometric measurements of asteroid 2001 FE90, which was making a close approach, and was able to measure its 29 minute rotation. He then combined his measurements with data from other observatories to determine the shape of the asteroid. Durkee also joined forces with 2007 Shoemaker NEO grant winners Brian Warner and Don Pray to study “binary asteroids” – asteroids made up of two space rocks circling each other while orbiting together around the Sun. In particular, they focused on known binaries 2000 AS152 and 1509 Escalngona, measuring the rotations of each of their two components.

Brian Warner added a 0.36 meter telescope to his Palmer Divide Observatory with the NEO Shoemaker grant he received in 2007. In addition to his collaboration with Durkee and Pray on the binaries study, Warner has also been recording the lightcurves of NEO’s and objects in the main asteroid belt. The curves help determine the precise motion of the space rock, whether it is rotating around an axis or tumbling along, and the length of time it takes it to complete each revolution. Of particular interest to Warner are “Mars-crossing” asteroids, which he refers to as “NEO’s in waiting,” requiring only a slight nudge to send them into an Earth-crossing orbit.

Another of the 2009 grant recipients was Gary Hug, who used his award to purchase a CCD camera for his Sandlot Observatory in Scranton, Kansas. Hug reports that it took him several months to get the new equipment to function seamlessly, but he did nonetheless manage to complete several hundred observations. In May of 2009 he thought for a while that he had discovered a new Potentially Hazardous Asteroid, which was given the designation 2009 KG3. Within a day, however, another astronomer identified the object with a NEO designated 2004 LC2, which was observed five years earlier but never again.

Finally, a word from our youngest recipient, Quanzhi Ye of Guangzhou, China. Quanzhi was an 18 year-old college freshman but already the Principal Investigator of the Lulin Sky Survey in Taiwan, when he received a Shoemaker NEO grant in 2007. He needed the money to purchase a laptop that would enable him to conduct his observation via the internet. Quanzhi discovered and tracked numerous NEO’s with the help of his laptop, but in March of 2009 the Lulin Sky Survey ended, and with it his role as PI. Nevertheless, as he told us in a recent e-mail, his road in observational astronomy is just beginning:

“I’ll graduate in this summer (how time flies! I was a freshman when applying Shoemaker Grant), and I’m now applying for several U.S. grad schools for further study in astronomy, so despite I’m temporarily off on asteroids, I’m still on the way. I’m very happy to say that Shoemaker Grant I received have done a lot on the “launch” of my Dream! ;-) Please keep up the good work, as the grant has/will help a lot of people.

Best regards,

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