On This Episode
Astronomer for Sandlot Observatory
Višnjan Observatory of Croatia
MAP Survey in Chile’s Atacama desert
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society
The Planetary Society has awarded another eight Gene Shoemaker near-Earth object grants to outstanding amateur astronomers and observatories around the world. We’ll meet recipients from Chile, Croatia and the United States after chief scientist Bruce Betts tells us about the program. Bruce will then return with Mat Kaplan for yet another What’s Up tour of the sky and a new space trivia contest.
- Announcing the 2021 Shoemaker NEO Grant Winners
- NEKAAL Farpoint Observatory
- MAP Survey in Chile
- Višnjan Observatory of Croatia
- The Downlink
- Subscribe to the monthly Planetary Radio newsletter
This Week’s Question:
In 2021, what were the top three professional asteroid survey for near-Earth asteroid discoveries?
This Week’s Prize:
A signed copy of “Goodnight Moon Base” by Brett Hoffstadt, illustrated by Steve Tanaka
To submit your answer:
Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, February 23 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.
Last week's question:
Name all the Olympic athletes who appear in pictures encoded on the Voyager 1 and 2 Golden Records.
The winner will be revealed next week.
Question from the Feb. 2, 2022 space trivia contest:
What working spacecraft are at the Earth-Sun Lagrange point 2? Include those that are in halo orbits near L2.
There are three active spacecraft at LaGrange point 2: GAIA, Spektr-RG, and the new kid in town, the JWST.
Mat Kaplan: Saving the world one telescope at a time, this week on Planetary Radio.
Mat Kaplan: Welcome, I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. The Planetary Society has just announced that eight more Gene Shoemaker Near-Earth Object Grants have been awarded to outstanding amateur astronomers around the world. We'll meet grateful leaders of observatories in Chile, Croatia and the United States. First though, the society's chief scientist will tell us about this nearly 25-year-old program. Bruce Betts has directed it for many years. Of course, Bruce will return for another rollicking trip across the night sky, a random space fact, and a brand new space trivia contest in What's Up?
Mat Kaplan: Woo-hoo, the Perseverance rover is the new world's record holder for longest drive in a single day. Of course, that world is Mars, where Percy's sister Curiosity was the previous record holder for seven earth years. 245 meters or 806 feet may not sound like much, but it's a full marathon for a red planet robot. You can see tracks left by Perseverance during its victory at the top of the February 11th Downlink, our free weekly newsletter. Elsewhere in the Downlink, you can read about the visible light photo snapped of the Venusian surface by the Parker Solar Probe. It even surprised the spacecraft's team. And it will come up again next week when I talk here with David Grinspoon.
Mat Kaplan: A bit farther down the page is an image of Jupiter's swirling "surface," that I wouldn't mind having framed on my wall. You'll find it at planetary.org/Downlink. Bruce, it's one of those times when I get to talk to you at both the top and bottom of the show, because we need you to introduce us to this very successful round of the Shoemaker NEO Grant program. Welcome.
Bruce Betts: Thank you. Good to be here, and always excited to talk about that.
Mat Kaplan: For the two or three people out there who maybe aren't familiar with the program, since we talk about it pretty regularly, what's this all about? Give us a quick elevator speech.
Bruce Betts: All right. The Planetary Society's Gene Shoemaker Near-Earth Object Grants Program has been going for about 24 years now. And we give grants mostly to advanced amateur astronomers. These are not just pull the telescope out and put it in your backyard, but it's, "We have observatories and groups of us and we're highly technical and we make real contributions."
Bruce Betts: Well, the contributions we help them with is to fund usually equipment upgrades, cameras, making things remote, re-aluminizing their mirrors so that they can make a real difference in planetary defense and protecting us from the asteroid threat, particularly in tracking, getting extra observations of asteroids, because when you find an asteroid, you know where it is then, but you don't know where it's going. So you need lots more observations. And in characterizing, figuring out things like spin rate, and is it actually a binary asteroid? Are there two, instead of one? We also fund some people because they're actually in a good position to make discoveries. And that is particularly southern hemisphere observers, like you'll hear from one during the show where there are not major professional surveys observing right now, so they can pick up the slack in the Southern sky.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, that's Alain Maury, one of the three that we will be hearing from in moments, but tell us about this round and this big group.
Bruce Betts: Thanks to the generosity of members and supporters of The Planetary Society. We're able to select our largest group, both in terms of number of astronomers and in terms of money this time. So there are eight grants that have been awarded to seven countries on three continents, about $75,000. We've now awarded over half a million dollars in the history of the program to ... I believe it's up to 21 countries around the world. It's exciting. And we hear it makes a difference. We're taking people who are already successful and kicking them up a notch to the next ability round. And right now, a lot of it is getting to see dimmer asteroids, because the professional surveys find these very dim asteroids, so these groups need more sensitive cameras and the like to improve sensitivity.
Mat Kaplan: That's a great preview of what we're going to be hearing from these representatives of these three observatories, because yeah, they talk about seeing higher magnitudes and also how grateful they are to The Planetary Society. I think all three of them do. How does the choice get made? You don't have a dart board someplace, right?
Bruce Betts: Well, I do, but it's not related. I don't use it for this purpose. That's more for like, what am I watching on TV tonight? We have a expert committee, the review panel that reviews all of the proposals and makes recommendations to me. And then we try to match it to the funding that we have available. And so that's led by Tim Spahr of NEO Sciences and formerly the head of the Minor Planet Center, where all this information goes when people observe. And he puts together great groups every time, and you can find all of their names on our website and my article that introduces the program. And we are super grateful. They volunteer their time and they're all professional asteroid hounds. It's good stuff.
Mat Kaplan: And I'm grateful because you mentioned the Minor Planet Center. That means I don't have to explain when one of the astronomers we'll be hearing from says "NPC" in a few minutes, because I didn't do it during the interview. And Shoemaker NEO, not over, right, even though we have another grant program that's now underway? And maybe there'll be some announcements about that one soon.
Bruce Betts: There will. There in the next very few weeks, we will have the first announcement of the first ever STEP grant program, Science and Technology Empowered by the Public. And that is much broader and with larger awards. And we've got some great stuff there, great proposals, so that'll be coming out soon. We are now done with this round of Shoemaker NEO grants. Well, it really has just started because they're going to actually get the awards and get the new hardware and do great stuff. The Shoemaker NEO awards run on roughly an every two-year cadence. So we expect we'll have another set next calendar year. We'll have an announcement probably at the Planetary Defense Conference in Vienna in spring of 2023. We'll announce a new round.
Mat Kaplan: Good introduction. I guess now we'll go to the first of those astronomers from one of those eight observatories that was lucky enough to get a Shoemaker NEO grant in this round. And I think we're going to start with Gary Hug, who is basically the head guy, the PI, the principal investigator, at Farpoint Observatory in Kansas. Thanks, Bruce. I'll talk to you during What's Up?, at the other end.
Bruce Betts: Thank you. Look forward to it. And a reminder, people can learn about all eight on our website.
Mat Kaplan: Gary Hug, congratulations on this Shoemaker NEO grant that you and your colleagues there at Farpoint Observatory, operated by the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomers League. Well, really, we're talking again, because you were one of our awardees some years ago for your Sandlot Observatory, and you were my guest on the show back then in 2012.
Gary Hug: Yes. And in 2019, the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomers League also received a grant in order to do a remote operation, and it worked well. And thank you very much, by the way.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, of course. You're very welcome. We're so proud of all eight of these observatories that we were able to award funds to in this round of the Shoemaker NEO grant. Let's start with what you're going to be doing with this little bit short of $11,600 to further upgrade what you've got at Farpoint.
Gary Hug: The interesting thing was last year, we were able to contact ... We applied for an application for a grant from the Mount Cuba Astronomical Foundation. And I think they're out of Delaware. And we got a grant to replace the mirror that's now in the Tombaugh telescope at Farpoint. It's a 27" F3 mirror that we have on order. And it's supposed to be coming in anytime, hopefully within the next month or so. And we're going to completely redo the telescope, the length of the telescope, to shorten it up considerably. This camera will be very beneficial for a new setup, because an F3, you need higher resolution than what our camera is producing right now. That camera will not only have a very wide field of view, it will also have good as resolution as it does even at F55.
Mat Kaplan: 27" F3, which is a very fast optical system, right?
Gary Hug: Yes.
Mat Kaplan: I mean, that's so impressive
Gary Hug: And it's very practical for us. Right now, we've got a roll-off roof observatory. And in the plains of Kansas, you don't get calm winds very often, all night long. So we thought about this for a long time, and we really wanted to shorten the tube up so it's not sticking up like a kite in the wind. And hopefully it will be a little more usable, even in the conditions where you've got a five- or 10-mile-an-hour wind. Past that, not many scopes do very well with an open observatory. It works out really well. All the dimensions work out really well for getting more use out of the scope because of the change of the optics. So between Mount Cuba Astronomical Foundation and the great folks there at The Planetary Society, we've been able to make this come together. And hopefully within the next month, we'll have it all done. I don't know, it may be six weeks.
Mat Kaplan: That's not bad. That's not bad at all. Did I read correctly that this is replacing a 10-year-old camera? Because cameras have come a long ways in 10 years.
Gary Hug: Yes, it's a 10-year-old camera, at least that that much. And it was a good camera and it does a good job, but yeah, you're right. The technology changes that have taken place is just amazing in 10 years. And so this will definitely be a big plus for us to get that kind of depth and resolution. These cameras are all back-lit. Now the back-lit chips are just very, very sensitive. So hopefully between the camera and our updated optics, we're going to have a bigger field of view, so we can find some of the moons that are a little bit off prediction, some of the NEOs that are a little bit off prediction. It gives us a better shot at it.
Mat Kaplan: Tell me a little bit more about Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomers League, or thank goodness we can shorten that to NEKAAL, which is the operator of Farpoint observatory. And I know that you have, what, at least three major associates there.
Gary Hug: It's a small club. We've got about 35 members, but of course, and you know, you always have a core group that does about 90% of the work, which is pretty common, I think, for the clubs.
Mat Kaplan: That's how it comes, yeah.
Gary Hug: Yeah, yeah. But anyway, this group Russ Valentine, who is our IT guy, has been very productive in helping us get through the tough stuff with computers. And then I've got David Cromer who is a lead observer. I'm not the lead observer. I'm the PI, but I'm not the lead observer. He's been the one that's been physically there most of the time. Doug Goodin, Dr. Doug Goodin, who's a K State professor, he's our science advisor, also actively involved in observing. We got a good group.
Mat Kaplan: Give them all our regards. Tell me also about how you're doing with your own Sandlot Observatory, which is really, almost literally, I guess, there in your backyard. You were just telling me about some amazing observations you've been able to do, very faint objects.
Gary Hug: Yeah, after the mirror had been resurfaced, it's a 22", I used to be able to get down to 21, about 21.3, 21.5. That was usually my limit. And I just couldn't seem to get past that. But now with the new [crosstalk 00:13:09].
Mat Kaplan: That's pretty darn good, though.
Gary Hug: Oh, it's not bad. It's a start. But now at this point with the optics being redone, it really did make a big difference, a full magnitude difference. So I'm now getting down to 22.3, 22.4. I think that's kind of a standard. I think you can probably get to 22.5 on a good night.
Mat Kaplan: This is very significant for people who have even a little bit less astronomy knowledge than I do. They may be thinking, "Well, gee, a difference of one magnitude. What's the big deal?" It is a big deal.
Gary Hug: Yes, right. Well, it's a two and a half times factor for every magnitude. So in a magnitude 21 to a magnitude 22, you're seeing two and a half times dimmer objects. So that's quite a bit. That really opens up a wide area of asteroids. And to be honest, lately, the NEO CP page is full of 21 to 22, 22.5. So very important that those faint objects get picked up because they don't have a lot of following. They don't have a lot of input. There's not very many observatories that reach 22.5.
Mat Kaplan: And these are objects that deserve to be followed, not just out of scientific curiosity, but because some of them are still pretty good sized. I mean, it could ruin some city's whole day if they were to meet up.
Gary Hug: Yes. That's very true. Yeah. I tell people I look to make sure that rocks don't fall on our head. That's really my goal here. There's a lot of things I could be doing my time. And I don't go to the bars. And Clyde Tombaugh used to say that all the time. He used to say, "Well, you can't spend time in the bars and be doing this."
Mat Kaplan: And it's nice that you actually have a telescope named after the great Clyde Tombaugh. That's a nice touch. Tell me that story again, about the 27" mirror. It's not just named in Tombaugh's honor.
Gary Hug: Yeah. It's got a little history behind it. And part of our ability to do this stuff for as long as we've done it so far is because the University of Kansas decided to loan us a 27" mirror that they had in their facility that actually Clyde Tombaugh used that mirror in a telescope and refurbished the telescope as part of his master thesis at KU.
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Gary Hug: So it has some historical ... and it makes me really nervous when I have to pull out of the telescope and put in the new one because I don't want to drop it. You know what I'm saying? It's important. That mirror was called the Pitt mirror. It was William Pitt who was an industrialist in Kansas City in the 1930s that made that mirror in his pool, drained pool, is where this was done. So there is some history behind it. It's made from Pyrex, and it was one of the first castings of Pyrex used in telescopes
Mat Kaplan: And went on to be used for such other famous mirrors as the 200" at the Hale Telescope [crosstalk 00:16:28]
Gary Hug: Right. Exactly. Exactly. So it's full of history. My thanks to Kansas University for loaning us that for such a long period of time.
Mat Kaplan: Absolutely. And what a legacy. Is it a priority not just to do astronomy there, but to share this passion that all of you in the club have for astronomy? Is there some public outreach?
Gary Hug: Certainly. You really can't not do public outreach, especially with a facility like ours. We have a 50% research and 50% EPO kind of outlook.
Mat Kaplan: Education and public outreach, EPO.
Gary Hug: Yes. We definitely have to do a lot of public outreach and we try to do our share of it. We tend to push the research side a little bit, but you got to have both. You really do.
Mat Kaplan: Before I let you go, I have to ask, Farpoint Observatory?
Gary Hug: Yes, it is.
Mat Kaplan: So live long and prosper would be appropriate?
Gary Hug: I know that people can't see me, but I have that kind of a Picard look.
Mat Kaplan: You do. Well, so do I.
Gary Hug: With my bald head.
Mat Kaplan: [crosstalk 00:17:38] I have a hat on, but yes. What we're talking about here, I guess it was the pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Gary Hug: Yes.
Mat Kaplan: And the Enterprise D visits a place called Farpoint Station. And I'd say middle of the country there in Kansas, that's a pretty good place to put something called Farpoint.
Gary Hug: Actually, when I say that, I have to, by legal standards, say that we're not associated with Paramount Pictures and so on and so forth because when we first named it Farpoint, we actually had to do that. We got a letter from Paramount, and we had to contact their lawyers and clear this usage. And we did. So we're good.
Mat Kaplan: I'm sure Captain Picard would've been very upset with Paramount because this seems to me that you are simply honoring that great television series.
Gary Hug: Yeah, sure. Of course.
Mat Kaplan: Gary, really, all I need to do is wrap up and say congratulations, once again. We look forward to hearing about the even greater results that you guys get there at Farpoint Observatory and at your own Sandlot Observatory, certainly at Farpoint, thanks in part to this great new camera, so clear skies.
Gary Hug: Well thank you, Mat. And The Planetary Society members are the best.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you for that. And how. That's Gary Hug of NEKAAL, the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomers League, and its Farpoint Observatory. I'll be back in less than a minute with two more Shoemaker NEO grant recipients and the return of Bruce Betts.
Casey Dreier: I'm Planetary Society chief advocate, Casey Dreier. Are you interested in our Day of Action to advocate for space, but can't commit to a full day of congressional meetings? Or do you live outside the United States? Either way, I have great news for you. You can go to planetary.org/dayofaction and pledge to take action with us on March 8th. We'll provide you with easy, effective actions you can do on your own time from anywhere in the world. That's planetary.org/dayofaction. Thank you.
Mat Kaplan: Korado Korlevic leads what may be one of the most beautiful science facilities on earth, the Višnjan Observatory is on a hilltop in Croatia, not too far from the Adriatic Sea. The Planetary Society has awarded $12,000 to the observatory for purchase of a powerful new CMOS camera for it's one-meter telescope. Korado and I talked a few days ago. Korado, congratulations on your and the Višnjan Observatory's reception of a Shoemaker NEO grant. Welcome to Planetary Radio.
Korado Korlevic: Thank you for having me. And second also, thanks for the grant and the possibility to have the new CCD camera and to continue the work that we are doing, but also supporting us morally because it is not only the money, the camera, but also that somebody see that you are working and somebody take care of that and like that you exist. So yeah, thanks for all of that.
Mat Kaplan: Absolutely. You're very welcome. And we are proud to be able to do this for you. Now, I've been on the observatory website and I've seen a long list of other organizations, most of them fairly close to you. It looks like you get a good deal of public support for everything that you do there at the observatory. So it looks like we're in good company.
Korado Korlevic: It is not only observatory. We are mainly an educational program. And we are a network of non-governmental organization dedicated to education. And if you want to inspire somebody, astronomy is probably one of the best way to do it. So we are using astronomy as a bait. The hook is mathematics, physics, whatever, but you need to put something on the hook. So astronomy is one of the ... it is not only astronomy. Archeology is very different, but also it is unbelievable bait for kids because you have other beautiful things inside.
Korado Korlevic: So astronomy is one of the part. To show them how astronomy is done, you need to be excellent in something. And we decided that asteroids ... follow up asteroids, helping the community of taking care of the potentially hazardous object. It is something. And it is also a tradition of our observatory, for many, many years, we were involved in the research of the Tunguska impact site in the 1908. I was there twice with the Russians. And we had then decide that is useless to observe the impact place. It is better to found the object for the next one and try to prevent the impact. So we decided just to go in building new telescopes, writing new software, educating kids how the business is done. And many of them choose astronomy as their profession. And a lot of them ended in the United States.
Mat Kaplan: That's very impressive. If I lived nearby, I think I would be up on your hillside all the time. It is a beautiful, beautiful site. And your facilities also look wonderful. I'm thinking in particular of you have a one-meter telescope, a roughly 39" mirror on that telescope. That's quite impressive.
Korado Korlevic: We got it from the scrap yard.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, no kidding.
Korado Korlevic: Yeah. And we worked on that telescope for 12 years to make it work and we robotized it, change out the motors, [inaudible 00:23:30]. And now we are thinking about new optics, also a new mirror. So the coma corrects, all the part that is very important to have a wide field of view, we already have. And we are now thinking to build ourself a next mirror rod, just to go to bigger one because the race to smaller magnitude object, it is unbelievable with the new telescope, the Rubin one that is coming, and we need to go at least one magnitude deeper. So we are already thinking, "What is the next generation of telescope job to be done?" We have students thinking about that. Hopefully we are going to follow it.
Mat Kaplan: We have been hearing from some of your colleagues, they have the same goal, reaching for those dimmer and dimer objects. What are you hoping that this new camera that the grant is paying for, and the other work you're doing on the telescope, to what magnitude do you hope to be able to see objects in the coming years?
Korado Korlevic: For this camera, it is going to be practically one-third of magnitude below, but [inaudible 00:24:36] is going to be a little bit more filled because when you're doing follow-up and confirmation, the certitude or to the position of the object, it is sometimes a lot. And you need to cover bigger part of the field with multiple exposure and multiple field, to try to find the object that is already lost after 12 hours of not following, especially if they're Atlas objects, the really bright one, the fast one. You just need to cover a larger field of view. So bigger sensor means bigger coverage makers, bigger surface, bigger probability to recover the object.
Mat Kaplan: So being able to see dimer objects and more of them, a wider field of view, as well. You mentioned the follow-up work that the observatory does, but I also saw that you've had a terrific of discovering new objects. In fact, that in 2020, you were third ranked in the world for NEO discoveries, which is pretty impressive nowadays, with all of the other government-supported surveys underway.
Korado Korlevic: These are not NEO. These are main belt objects.
Mat Kaplan: Ah, okay.
Korado Korlevic: We found also some NEOs, because when you eye on the sky and searching everything, you find sometimes NEOs, but our field of view is not at the moment worth trying to compete with the survey telescope. We just realized that is the most important not to lose the discovered one. And our best contribution, it is not to try to compete with them, but to just help them not to lose objects. And in this, we are relatively good.
Korado Korlevic: Many years ago, we managed to try to make some surveys. We discovered more than 1,400 new asteroids main belt, some comets. But this is just part of showing the kids that is possible to be done. And if you are dedicated, you have idea what to do, you can really can make from not a great equipment, but with a great idea, with creativity, you can compete. And this is something that we want to show to the kids. And they wrote a fantastic software to be able to do that. And they realized that they're good. And this is what we want to do. Just show them how good they are. And they need to have this high hopes not to try to play smaller.
Mat Kaplan: With all of these terrific educational activities, STEM and STEAM activities that the observatory conducts with young people, with children, I wonder, has it been a challenge for you over the last couple of years during the pandemic? And how has that affected your ability to look for and follow up on near-earth objects?
Korado Korlevic: It was a great time. The society is so full of impediments and problems that is generating to your job. And when society's some kind of blocked, you have more free time to do education, to do science, to do everything. And also, here in Croatia, was not a great deal. So everybody took his responsibility and tried to avoid the blockage that state was inventing every day, and just play your game. And we made probably the most of the pandemic. So the only problem that we had with equipment. The equipment that we need was not here, but in Italy. And you need to cross the borders with all the problem that it was crossing borders at the time, but we managed to do it. We are here. Yeah, it was not the time that we are going to remember as a bad time for the job. It was bad time for the society.
Mat Kaplan: That's great to hear, I mean, as far as the observatory goes, your observatory. I guess some of your colleagues have had more challenges. I'm going to add your observatory to the list of places that I want to go when I do my astrotourism trip around the world. I have to ask, what is that mysterious looking circle of tall stones that is just across from your telescope dome?
Korado Korlevic: It is a replica. The original is eight kilometer from here. So to try to explain kids what was an observatory 4,000 years ago, and that observatory was not for stars, but for the sun. And it was a calendar. So we just took the one that is on the Saint Angel Hill near our observatory and make a replica near the observatory to show them the difference in perception of the sky and everything. And also for the summer solstice, it is the stage for the musical festival that we have. At first, we made it for the stage, but after the festival ended, people just decided, "It's too beautiful. Let's leave it there. It's going to be for the next year. And it is going to [inaudible 00:29:48] for the next year." And now it is part of the environment of the observatory and the musical festivals during the summer solstice. So it is there.
Mat Kaplan: Art and science brought together, as it's should be. I look forward to visiting in person someday. And Korado, I'll simply congratulate you and the rest of your team there on the great work that you're doing. And congratulations, once again, on receiving this Shoemaker NEO grant.
Korado Korlevic: You are welcome to come. And thanks for the grants, for the interest, and unbelievable job that Planetary Society is doing. And all these non-government organization in United States that are doing an unbelievable contribution to the society, not only the astronomical one, but also this connection to society and science and to play in between. So The Planetary Society and the founders were one of ... when we are speaking about the founding of The Planetary Society, education was always in the mind of Carl Sagan.
Mat Kaplan: Absolutely.
Korado Korlevic: So yeah, thank you for the educational part, especially. Thank you.
Mat Kaplan: You heard Bruce Betts talk up front about the importance of searching southern hemisphere skies for near-earth objects. That's what Alain Maury and his colleagues, Georges Attard and Daniel Parrott, do from Chile's Atacama Desert, where so many of Earth's leading observatories are based. While Georges is in France and Daniel in the US, Alain lives on site, in the picturesque village of San Pedro de Atacama. It's where I stayed a few years ago when I visited the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, the radio telescope complex that is 6,000 meters above sea level in the region's ridiculously dry air.
Mat Kaplan: The Planetary Society has awarded $8,000 to Alain's map survey for the purchase of two new digital cameras. Alain Maury, welcome to Planetary Radio, and congratulations to you and to your partners at the MAP Observatory on getting this Shoemaker NEO grant. We're delighted to be able to talk to you a little bit about what the grant's going to do for you and the work that you do that are at MAP. Welcome.
Alain Maury: Thank you. We are very, very, very happy, really.
Mat Kaplan: And we are very happy to be able to help you in your work down there. Your observatory, in a relatively short period of time, has had stunning success. Bruce Betts tells me that MAP set a record with its discovery of 33 near-earth objects through July of last year, just in something like the first year of your operation.
Alain Maury: Well, now we're at 65 or something. The last one was this morning, and ...
Mat Kaplan: Wow. Amazing.
Alain Maury: It's an Aten asteroid, one that orbits inside the orbit of the earth, mostly. Now, it's been very, very impressive, but it's a conjunction of a lot of different factors. And it didn't happen just like that. We had a lot of work during 2020 and started really observing, yeah, about a year ago. And then have been very, very successful. In fact, to the point, if you look at the discoveries from 2021, we were the fourth group of asteroid discoverers behind, of course, the NASA [inaudible 00:33:11] programs who use like Pan-STARR's 1.8-meter telescope, Catalina's 1.5, Atlas's two telescopes of 50 centimeter.
Alain Maury: And so we were the first group, just with two telescopes. The grant for us is very important because it's going to allow to use two more telescopes. What happened is that I used to work in professional observatory as a technician and an engineer. But when I worked at Palomar Observatory, I met people like Eleanor Helin and Gene Shoemaker, who gave me the virus. It was a lot of contagion. And then when I left professional astronomy, at least, and do astrotourism, I had in my mind to keep looking for asteroids, even though it's becoming harder and harder. In the year 2000, it was very easy for an amateur to discover asteroids because everything was to be done. Now, most of the asteroids we find are already discovered. And very often, we discover something, then we make more observation. And a few days later, some guy at the NPC find that it's like 2003 so and so, and so. And so we lose the discovery, but it's very useful because of course discovering is one thing. And then of course, improving the orbits is another very important thing.
Mat Kaplan: Extremely important. I mean, we have talked frequently on this program about the important follow-up work that so-called amateur astronomers do. Of course, you are not amateur in any way, except of course that you do this out of love for astronomy. And you've already revealed, because of this recent start, I thought, "Wouldn't it be terrible if when I visited the Atacama, where I'm speaking to you now at your home in San Pedro de Atacama, if I missed seeing your observatory." But I don't think you had established it yet when I made my trip there to go up to the ALMA Array.
Alain Maury: Very likely I was, but didn't have all the domes that we have now. Starting 2009, I started to put robotic telescopes, because I felt I shouldn't depend only on tourism. And it was a very wise decision because the last two years have been very, very hard. I mean, there was no tourism at all. It's barely starting again now. When tourism started to work really good, then I had money for my toys. And so I could buy the telescopes and wide field telescopes. So I bought one and I said, "Wow, that's great." Then I bought two, three, four. The cameras also make a big difference because we used to use CCD camera. And now we have a thinned seamless camera for a very, very good price. But when I had the money to buy them, they were not available. They just came out and they were announced. And then ... So I could find one in California, one in France, and then I was lucky to get two more.
Alain Maury: The other aspect was you need very powerful computers. Data miners get them before they are on the market. It was also very hard to get them. And so I was able to find a few on eBays, and so and so on. And so getting the equipment was very complicated. What we do also with the telescope is when we have the discovery, we send the observation to another bigger telescope, except the bigger telescope was with the CCD cameras. One was not as efficient as the small ones. So we had to use one of the camera there. And so we could only run for now with two telescopes and one confirmation telescope. And it's been very important to make a confirmation in real time.
Alain Maury: The other aspect is, of course, the participation of my two friends. I'm really very, very lucky to work with these two guys. Daniel is so bright. Wow. I work in professional astronomy, and short of one or two guy, I've never found a guy that was as good as him, as far as computers and stuff. I had learned about what we call synthetic tracking that was invented by Mike Shao at JPL. I read the article and it was like, "Eh," I didn't understand. Well, so I sent them an email to see, et cetera. And in fact, we started to collaborate because they were very good in software, but not too good in small telescopes.
Alain Maury: But then independently, Daniel Parrott had started this program. And he contacted me. Well, I was so happy that he had already working program. And we improved it quite a lot. I mean, he improved it using our recommendation. And Georges turned out also to be a very, very bright guy. He's a guy who tells you, "Yeah, that cannot be done. It's complex, and so on." And the following day said, "Well, I've wrote it and let me try and let me see if it works." And so now we have really a suite of software which I never seen in any professional observatory. It's very cool to observe. You look every an hour and you see if there is a detection. If not, you can click on a button and see if it's known or not known. I mean, very, very nice system. So I'm very happy, and very happy to work with these two guys.
Mat Kaplan: What an amazing advance, over not that many years ago; still not easy, but still so much easier now. And you're not new to this game. I mean, first of all, I think it's wonderful to hear that you were actually mentored by Gene Shoemaker himself, whom this grant program is named after. I saw that your first discovery was way back in 1983. And then you were telling me what I'd seen also when I read about you, that you spent some time at the Mount Palomar Observatory, not far from where I am now, doing survey work there. I am envious of you actually living in the Atacama where the most beautiful night skies I have ever seen are right there, just walking a couple of hundred feet away from the little village. It seems like a marvelous place to do astronomy. And I'm glad to hear that astrotourism is starting to make a comeback.
Alain Maury: That's very important because of course the equipment we have was accumulated over the years. It was also a good thing, because then when you buy equipment, we travel to California. We sometime went to New York as well. And then come back with a lot of suitcases full of computers and stuff, which of course are hard to find in Chile, or when you find something, it's like twice, three times the price and so on. So we've been doing a lot of traffic between California, where there are places that sell telescope and computers and things. So we accumulated the equipment that was needed. And we started to do tests and stuff. And 2020, we found our first NEO. And it was like, "Wow, maybe it's luck." And then we started to find more and more, and is very, very nice.
Alain Maury: At Palomar, of course, my work on survey was like ... I was processing photographic plates. I discovered quite a few of near-earth objects at the time, but there are monsters, things that were H magnitude 16, very, very bright object, very big object, because there were still a lot of them to be found. And then of course, in the last 20 years, the Spaceguard Survey, I mean, the program from NASA, have done a huge work to clear the thing out. And now when you find an asteroid, which is like H magnitude, what we call the absolute magnitude 19 or 20, you have the impression you found a big guy, whereas at the time, we had like a huge things. When I came back to France, we discovered Toutatis, which is like a six-kilometer NEO.
Mat Kaplan: That's a good size. Yeah, that'll take [crosstalk 00:41:11]
Alain Maury: You don't find that type of thing anymore. It's over. Now very often you find very small objects, but it's important because a 100-, 200-meter object can be quite a bad, bad news.
Mat Kaplan: Absolutely. Tell me, now that the grant has been awarded, how long do you think it will be before you have those two new cameras and four telescopes to continue this terrific work?
Alain Maury: The two telescope that you've seen in the picture, so these telescopes were bought like in 2018, 2019, but didn't have the camera for them. So now we have the two fields, one on top of the other. Now we're going to have four fields. So we'll have, instead of 3.3 by 4.4 degrees, we'll have 6.6 by 4.4 degree, which means we will scan much more sky in right ascension. We're also going to put very soon two more telescopes. So we'll have six telescopes on the sky. Hopefully, two more should come very, very soon. And now with the two cameras, Daniel will buy them and will come to visit Chile, because one of the weird things, we work very often together. I mean, Georges, I talk to him every day, Daniel, every two, three days or something like that, but I never met them.
Mat Kaplan: Ah, interesting.
Alain Maury: And so Daniel is going to come to Chile to see ... well, to see the Atacama Desert to observe, and also to see all the equipment and stuff. And I will meet him for the first time, other than with Skype.
Mat Kaplan: I hope that he loves the Atacama as much as I did during my brief visit there. It is wonderful to hear about how the work that you have already done, stunning success, is only be amplified by what you're able to do with these two new cameras and eventually those two new telescopes as well. Thank you so much, Alain, for taking us through what you're up to there at MAP, which I will point out is an acronym for your three names, you and your partners, Maury, Attard and Parrott. I look forward to visiting it again someday and taking a peek through some of your telescopes.
Alain Maury: And then if I go to Chula Vista, we can talk. And we have to basically go every year if you want to keep the equipment and so on and so up to date. So maybe we'll meet there.
Mat Kaplan: I would love that. Let me know if you are ever in the Southern California area, even if it's not close to San Diego, and we will get together. You'll have to come by Planetary Society headquarters as well, assuming that we've relaxed our own pandemic limitations.
Alain Maury: Yeah. I've been to the place there and met with Emily at the time.
Mat Kaplan: Oh yes, Emily Lakdawalla, my former and still terrific colleague. Oh, that's great.
Alain Maury: That was like five years ago I went to ... because also, still have friends in Caltech; not a lot, they're getting older, but no, visited the place. And I know a little bit of the history of the whole thing, because I've been started in California, like in 1984. That's already a long time ago.
Mat Kaplan: We will happily welcome you back. And once again, congratulations on the grant and on this terrific work that you and your partners do.
Alain Maury: Yeah, okay. Thank you very much because really, it's going to change our life. Thank you.
Mat Kaplan: So there are three of the eight winners in the just completed Shoemaker NEO Grant Program round. The guy who's in charge of that program, the guy we started the show with, is back with us. He's the chief scientist of The Planetary Society. Welcome, Bruce Betts.
Bruce Betts: I want to mention one thing that I failed to mention earlier, which is, who is Gene Shoemaker, who the program's named after? And he was a planetary geologist who was one of the critical people in figuring out the importance of impact and impact cratering in the solar system, including on Earth, and also has had a very talented observer, astronomer wife. And they found objects and he studied objects and did all sorts of great stuff. When he passed away in an accident in 1997, that was the impetus for starting the program and naming it after him.
Mat Kaplan: You have not heard the interviews yet. So I don't know that you know that Alain Maury from the MAP Observatory in Chile, he was more or less introduced to this field by Gene Shoemaker. They knew each other well, and Shoemaker was something of a mentor.
Bruce Betts: Oh, that's neat. No, I haven't heard that. I knew Gene and interacted with him and have stories, but perhaps another time.
Mat Kaplan: I'd love to hear some of those sometime, but for now, tell us about the night sky.
Bruce Betts: It's all pretty dawn when it comes to planets these days. So those of you still up, I assume at 5:00 and 6:00, 7:00 in the morning, whatever time happens then, you can check out a bunch of planets in the east, shortly before dawn. We've got Venus looking super bright, as always; Mars to its lower right, pretty nearby. You might still be able to catch Mercury. It's going to be much lower to the left, along with Saturn. But really, the easy ones are Venus and Mars to its lower right, Mars looking reddish.
Bruce Betts: We do have some great constellations in the evening sky. We've got Orion up over there in the south and the east. And Orion points to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. And hey, if you've got a big view of the sky, you can check out the Winter Hexagon, made up of six really bright stars surrounding Orion. The first one we'll start with is Rigel, the blue star in Orion. And then to its over clockwise is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky; up, Procyon; over, Pollux; down, Aldebaran. There's six stars, Matt. That makes a hexagon. It's not a very regular hexagon, but it's kind of close.
Mat Kaplan: So what's up with Castor? Castor, the evil twin, the chopped liver?
Bruce Betts: He is not chopped liver. He is known as the evil twin, though. Now Castor, hanging out with Pollux, is worth seeing. Castor is dimmer, which is why it doesn't get included in the Winter Hexagon, but it is part of the twins. So yeah, go ahead and check out Castor along with Pollux, but do not believe anything he says.
Mat Kaplan: All right, keep going.
Bruce Betts: This week in space history, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. 1986, the first piece of what would become the Mir space station was launched by the Soviet Union. And if we go back a little bit further in history, we get to Pluto being discovered in 1930 this week by Clyde Tombaugh.
Mat Kaplan: Another great tie-in to the conversations we just had with Shoemaker NEO winners, because Gary Hug, there's a telescope there that's the Tombaugh telescope. It actually uses a mirror that Clyde Tombaugh ... What did he say? Did he help to grind the mirror? I forget now. Oh, I should remember. Anyway.
Bruce Betts: Wow. Yeah, let's move on to the [inaudible 00:48:25]. As of now, the largest asteroids predicted to fly within one lunar distance of Earth, you may ask yourself, "What are they? When are they?" Well, we've got 2001 WN5, which we've discussed before, which is almost a kilometer in diameter, comes 0.6 lunar diameters away in June of 2028. The next year Apophis comes back and that flies by, a 300-meter asteroid, within 1/10th of a lunar distance within the orbit of geostationary satellites. Then if you're skipping ahead and thinking about, "Hey, what's going to happen in 2140," you will get 2000 WO107 is going to fly by. And it's about 500 meters.
Mat Kaplan: How close is that one going to get?
Bruce Betts: About 500 meters. No, sorry.
Mat Kaplan: That's close. That's a close call.
Bruce Betts: Look out, people. Hey, now I'm going to be quoted: "Planetary Society chief scientist says ... It will be fine, though. It'll just pass right through the atmosphere. It's complicated." No, that is not true at all. It will come by and it will be 0.6 three lunar distances away from the Earth.
Mat Kaplan: Nothing to get upset about. [crosstalk 00:49:49]
Bruce Betts: No, I should have said, nothing to get upset about. And that's what we know now. We're looking and tracking and figuring, making sure there's nothing else. Trivia, trivia, trivia, trivia contest. I asked you what working spacecraft are at or nearby in a halo orbit, the earth, sun, Lagrange 0.2 L2, off about a million and a half kilometers on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, a gravitationally kind of stable point?
Mat Kaplan: I'm just going to take us directly to the winner this time. He is a first-time winner in California. Drum roll, please. I actually have one here somewhere. Matt Boyles. Matt Boyles, who has been listening to us for a long time, but he is a first-time winner with this. He says there are three spacecraft currently active at L2, Gaia, Spektr-RG and, of course, the new arrival, the new kid in the neighborhood, the James Webb Space Telescope or JWST. Is that correct?
Bruce Betts: That is indeed correct.
Mat Kaplan: Congratulations, Matt Boyles. We are going to send you, or we will have the studio, I guess, send you that package of swag from the movie Moonfall. It's a huge hit. No, it's actually not.
Bruce Betts: But pick up the Blu-ray when it comes out, because there's a brilliant, brilliant, special feature involving brilliant, brilliant scientists.
Mat Kaplan: Which is probably, from what I've heard, the only actual science that may be connected to that entire film.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, that could be true.
Mat Kaplan: The movie is not doing that great at the box office, but I still want to see it because I'll bet it's still a little bit of fun. We're going to send you, Matt, that package of all kinds of stuff and some tickets. But the way things are going, they'll have to get them to you quickly. And you'll have to run down to the local theater, because I'm not sure it's going to be there that much longer. Sorry, but box office was kind of a bust. Hey, maybe we'll throw in a rubber asteroid, just to be cool about this. What do you think?
Bruce Betts: I think we always should do that whenever possible. Throwing rubber asteroids is a favorite pastime.
Mat Kaplan: For me, too. Norman Kissoon talked about some of the other spacecraft. You wanted the ones that are still working. I guess, Planck or Planck was there, and a Chinese one, [Tiangong-2 00:52:17]. You know about those?
Bruce Betts: Yes. Yes, no. And they, I believe, nicely moved. Everything that was hanging out there was moved out of there into other orbits, into heliocentric orbits, because other spacecraft are going to want to be there because it is this relatively stable point that's particularly where you want to put these telescopes, because you don't have interference from Earth in terms of light and stuff like that.
Mat Kaplan: It is apparently becoming a pretty busy neighborhood. Here's from Mark Little in Northern Ireland, "Another seven probes are planned to go there in the future, along with traffic lights, a few zebra crossings and collision avoidance bumpers."
Bruce Betts: That, I did not know.
Mat Kaplan: Got to stay on top of this stuff. I won't give you the entire lyrics from these folks, Perry [Metzker 00:53:13] in New Hampshire or Robert [Clain 00:53:14] in Arizona, but it starts like this, "Home, home on Lagrange."
Bruce Betts: Where the Gaia and JWST play, where seldom is heard a Spektr-RG, unless you're collecting radio science data.
Mat Kaplan: That's good. That's very well done.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, except they went to radio silence, so that was wrong.
Mat Kaplan: Joe [Kaliputrae 00:53:40] in New Jersey, speaking about Spektr, "That x-ray probe, but we really know that's what it's about, Spektr? Beware, Mr. Bond." And along those lines from Mel Powell in California, "Shouldn't Spektr be parked at Lagrange 0.007?"
Bruce Betts: I don't expect you to die, Mr. Bond. I expect you to do science.
Mat Kaplan: That's good. And finally, one poem this week from Gene Lewin in Washington, "Spektr, Gaia and JWST all working now at L2, you see. A balancing act is here employed, a three-body problem. They all enjoy."
Bruce Betts: Oh, nice.
Mat Kaplan: Nicely done. What do you got for next time?
Bruce Betts: All right, we're going to finish the NEO episode, the near-earth asteroid episode with a near-earth asteroid question. In 2021, what were the top three asteroid surveys in terms of near-earth asteroid discoveries, top three professional asteroid surveys in terms of first finding near-earth asteroids? Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.
Mat Kaplan: You have until the 23rd, February 23rd at 8:00 AM Pacific time, this time around., And somebody is going to win, and I've been waiting for this for a long time ... See this book, isn't that cute?
Bruce Betts: I do. I see that, Goodnight Moon Base.
Mat Kaplan: And it's really sweet. It's very clever. It of course is based on that great genre, it's become a genre, the Goodnight Moon books. And there are a whole raft of books that pay tribute to that. Well, Goodnight Moon Base has been written by Brett Hoffstadt. It's illustrated by Steve Tanaka. And I have a signed hard copy in my hands. And this is the copy that will be going to whoever makes it past random.org this week with the correct answer. It's published by Aero Maestro. Brett and Steve have been working on this a long time. It is now available in all the usual places, I believe. That's it. We're done.
Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there, look at the night sky, and think about what you'd think about while ski jumping. Thank you, and good night.
Mat Kaplan: Huh, I think I'd be thinking, "No." [inaudible 00:56:06] Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, who joins us every week here for What's Up?
Bruce Betts: It'll be okay, man. It'll be ... Oh.
Mat Kaplan: Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its generous members. You can become part of their defense of our world at planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Jason Davis are our associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.