Sept 17, 2003
Combine a new telescope at Calvin College and a talented astronomy student and what do you get? The discovery of a new object in the solar system - specifically a previously unmapped asteroid.
The talented student is Calvin senior Andrew Vanden Heuvel, a Grand Rapids native and graduate of South Christian High School who is a Calvin physics major and astronomy minor.
The new telescope was installed just this past March - as a result of a $130,000 grant to Calvin from the National Science Foundation - and is a 16-inch beauty from Optical Guidance Systems that features precision computer pointing and the same imaging techniques as those used by professional astronomers at major observatories.
And the asteroid is now known (says the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union) as 2003 RA11. It will hold this designation until its orbit is refined by additional observations over several years, after which point the discoverer may choose a permanent name.
How Vanden Heuvel discovered his new asteroid is, he says, an interesting part of the story.
He was attempting to measure the rotational period of a known asteroid, an asteroid called van den Heuvel (named after a famous Dutch astronomer)! A series of 30 five-minute exposures were taken with the new telescope and when that series was examined it showed not only the asteroid whose rotation was being measured, but three other unexpected asteroids as well. Their positions were checked against those of known asteroids and one turned out to not be on the list. A new asteroid had been discovered!
Says Calvin professor and Observatory director Larry Molnar: "That one is able to discover a new, exceedingly faint solar system object in a single field of view is a testimony not only to the power of an excellent telescope on a rare Michigan night of superb transparency, but also testimony to a terrific student with a sharp eye."
The discovery was made September 5, 2003 with images shot between 12:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. After taking follow up images the following night, it then was submitted to the Minor Planet Center, the institution responsible for keeping track of all the small bodies in the solar system. They confirmed that the object was indeed not previously observed and assigned the provisional designation of 2003 RA11 (based on the date of discovery).
On the night of its discovery, says Molnar, Asteroid 2003 RA11 was in the constellation of Aquarius, just 10 degrees north of the planet Mars, which dominated the night sky, shining eight hundred million times more brightly than the asteroid.
Vanden Heuvel will be applying this fall to graduate programs in astronomy for next year and says the timing of discovering a new object in the sky probably isn't a bad thing as far as his search goes!
"Maybe I'll include it," he says with a chuckle, "under 'other accomplishments.'"
VandenHeuvel has been interested in astronomy since 8th grade when he was introduced to the subject by Tom VanderLaan, a teacher at Cutlerville Christian. In high school Vanden Heuvel stayed up-to-date in astronomy and when he got to Calvin he dove into the school's physics major and brand new astronomy minor. He says the efforts of Molnar and astronomy professor Deborah Haarsma have made for a great experience at Calvin.
"It's been terrific," he says. "The new telescope is great, but even before that professor Molnar and professor Haarsma have really done a lot, not only in terms of getting equipment, but also sharing their time and their experiences. It's a good time to have been here."