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Astronomical Observatory: Cool Images

Asteroids

Asteroid Discovery Lab

Introduction: In September 2003, a Calvin student made the serendipitous discovery of asteroid 2003 RA11 using our Grand Rapids telescope. In December 2004, Prof. Molnar easily recovered this asteroid, meanwhile discovering eight new ones using our Rehoboth, New Mexico telescope. This degree of success suggested one might have a classroom laboratory designed for students working as a team to discover a number of asteroids. This page will describe such a lab as undertaken by our spring 2005 Physics 134 class. Over a five week period, 19 students working as a team found, reported, and followed 15 new asteroids. To our knowledge, this is the only undergraduate class anywhere discovering new asteroids as an assignment.

Project design: We selected a one degree square area in Leo to survey, mapping it with a 3x4 array of images. The field was chosen so that main belt asteroids in it would still be several weeks from opposition (and hence would be able to get a one month arc on most new discoveries). It was also chosen to have an ecliptic latitude of +6 degrees, placing the field higher in the sky where the seeing is better. Each night of observing, each field was observed for five minutes once per hour, repeating up to six times. The exposure time was the longest possible without streaking. The number of repetitions was greater than the minimum of three so that transient effects in any one image wouldn't compromise the set.

Observing schedule and results: The initial images were taken on the nights of February 2/3 and 3/4 (with an offset in the pointing designed to match typical asteroid motion). Analysis of these images showed 18 and 21 asteroids, respectively, of which 8 turned out to be new discoveries. Ephemerides were computed to follow up the new objects again on February 13/14, March 1/2 and March 3/4. All but one of the original eight were found again (the one being too faint), and seven more new ones were found in the process of followup. The provisional designations and orbital information for all of the new discoveries are shown in our asteroid discovery table.

Data Processing: For each observing field, the set of images were first calibrated with MaxIm DL and then analyzed astrometrically with Visual PinPoint (i.e., object positions were determined with reference to a standard coordinate frame using the USNO A2.0 catalog of stellar positions). PinPoint adjusts image position, brightness, and contrast automatically to allow discovery of moving objects against a background of unmoving stars. Student inspection of the data is crucial as the human eye is extremely sensitive to organized motion, and all of the new discoveries were within one magnitude of the noise limit (at or slightly below 21.0 magnitude). Indeed it is the human element that allows us to reach a limiting magnitude similar to that reached by professional automated asteroid surveys using larger telescopes.

Pedagogy: In Physics 134 we seek to give first-year students a contextually rich picture of physics in terms of developing and testing new ideas, instead
of simply having them learn accepted ideas from a textbook. We also
introduce them to some aspects of modern physics that are not usually
available to first-year students.

The asteroid laboratory, which extended over five weeks, exemplified a complete scientific study. It included the elements of learning the operation of new equipment, the calibration of data, the understanding of a theory (orbital motion), working as a team (to process large quantities of data), and the importance of quality control (since the final data was submitted for publication in the Minor Planet Circulars) and timeliness (discovery credit goes to the first observatory to submit correct results). The lab was open-ended in a manner typical of real science: one does not know in advance where or how many asteroids will be found; the images contained not only asteroids but also stars, galaxies, meteors, satellites, and even one airplane.

Students and faculty of the Spring 2005 Physics 134 Class

Students and faculty of the Spring 2005 Physics 134 Class

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction: In September 2003, a Calvin student made the serendipitous discovery of asteroid 2003 RA11 using our Grand Rapids telescope. In December 2004, Prof. Molnar easily recovered this asteroid, meanwhile discovering eight new ones using our Rehoboth, New Mexico telescope. This degree of success suggested one might have a classroom laboratory designed for students working as a team to discover a number of asteroids. This page will describe such a lab as undertaken by our spring 2005 Physics 134 class. Over a five week period, 19 students working as a team found, reported, and followed 15 new asteroids. To our knowledge, this is the only undergraduate class anywhere discovering new asteroids as an assignment.

Project design: We selected a one degree square area in Leo to survey, mapping it with a 3x4 array of images. The field was chosen so that main belt asteroids in it would still be several weeks from opposition (and hence would be able to get a one month arc on most new discoveries). It was also chosen to have an ecliptic latitude of +6 degrees, placing the field higher in the sky where the seeing is better. Each night of observing, each field was observed for five minutes once per hour, repeating up to six times. The exposure time was the longest possible without streaking. The number of repetitions was greater than the minimum of three so that transient effects in any one image wouldn't compromise the set.

Observing schedule and results: The initial images were taken on the nights of February 2/3 and 3/4 (with an offset in the pointing designed to match typical asteroid motion). Analysis of these images showed 18 and 21 asteroids, respectively, of which 8 turned out to be new discoveries. Ephemerides were computed to follow up the new objects again on February 13/14, March 1/2 and March 3/4. All but one of the original eight were found again (the one being too faint), and seven more new ones were found in the process of followup. The provisional designations and orbital information for all of the new discoveries are shown in our asteroid discovery

table.

Data Processing: For each observing field, the set of images were first calibrated with MaxIm DL and then analyzed astrometrically with Visual PinPoint (i.e., object positions were determined with reference to a standard coordinate frame using the USNO A2.0 catalog of stellar positions). PinPoint adjusts image position, brightness, and contrast automatically to allow discovery of moving objects against a background of unmoving stars. Student inspection of the data is crucial as the human eye is extremely sensitive to organized motion, and all of the new discoveries were within one magnitude of the noise limit (at or slightly below 21.0 magnitude). Indeed it is the human element that allows us to reach a limiting magnitude similar to that reached by professional automated asteroid surveys using larger telescopes.

Pedagogy: In Physics 134 we seek to give first-year students a contextually rich picture of physics in terms of developing and testing new ideas, instead
of simply having them learn accepted ideas from a textbook. We also
introduce them to some aspects of modern physics that are not usually
available to first-year students.

The asteroid laboratory, which extended over five weeks, exemplified a complete scientific study. It included the elements of learning the operation of new equipment, the calibration of data, the understanding of a theory (orbital motion), working as a team (to process large quantities of data), and the importance of quality control (since the final data was submitted for publication in the Minor Planet Circulars) and timeliness (discovery credit goes to the first observatory to submit correct results). The lab was open-ended in a manner typical of real science: one does not know in advance where or how many asteroids will be found; the images contained not only asteroids but also stars, galaxies, meteors, satellites, and even one airplane.

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