After spending several September nights tracking and obtaining images of a near-Earth asteroid (NEA), a team of five Purdue University Northwest student researchers generated related data that was published in the Nov. 25 issue of “Minor Planet Circulars.”
The students—Jerald Balta of Portage, Steven Garza of Hammond, Muhammad Siddiqui of Valparaiso, Samantha Tarkington of Highland and Joshua Vandenoever of Lowell—monitored and observed the asteroid between Sept. 10 and 21.
They went on to submit their research data and eight images of the 2002 RS28 Amor class NEA to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Supported by the International Astronomical Union, the MPC is considered a prominent worldwide site for receipt and distribution of positional measurements of minor planets, comets and outer irregular natural satellites of the major planets.
Thanks to data input from a universal network of professional and amateur astronomers, the MPC keeps trajectory information current about NEAs, which are defined as asteroids whose orbit brings them closer to the Earth than orbits of Venus or Mars.
Introduction to observational astronomy research
“This project is a great way to introduce undergraduate researchers to observational astronomy research,” Purdue Northwest Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy Adam Rengstorf said. “These students gained experience operating the NIRo telescope and camera, calibrating and analyzing images, determining an object’s position and brightness, and preparing data for submission to the MPC.”
The students, all physics majors with an interest in observational astronomy, used Purdue Northwest’s state-of-the-art NIRo (Northwest Indiana Robotic) Telescope to image the RS28 asteroid.
“The images they obtained were used to calculate up-to-date positions of the asteroid,” Rengstorf said. “Their new positional calculations were precise and accurate enough to be accepted by the MPC for use in the next determination of updated orbital elements for the asteroid.”
Large enough, but not close enough
The asteroid comes within about 10 million miles of Earth’s orbit and is 2-3 kilometers in diameter—large enough to cause serious global damage to Earth, but not close enough to be considered a collision threat.
“We chose RS28 for monitoring because it was close enough, bright enough and in the right part of the sky to be seen with the NIRo telescope during the (recent) fall semester,” Rengstorf said.
The NIRo Telescope is housed at the Calumet Astronomy Center at Buckley Homestead County Park in Lowell. The Calumet Astronomy Center is a collaborative endeavor among Purdue Northwest; the Calumet Astronomical Society, Northwest Indiana’s amateur astronomy organization; and the Lake County Parks and Recreation Dept. The Thomas Conway Observatory, maintained by the Calumet Astronomical Society, also is located at the Calumet Astronomy Center.
“I consider the effort by these students a valuable bit of global community service,” Rengstorf said. “They are helping the international astronomical community keep track of solar system objects that potentially could pose impact threats on Earth.”