Alumni ProfileAndrew Vanden Heuvel ’04
Opening eyes, discovering asteroids

Three high school sophomores in Racine, Wis., can count themselves in the company of professional astronomers, thanks to the guidance of their science teacher, Andrew Vanden Heuvel ’04.

In early January, Vanden Heuvel offered several project options to the 12 students in his astronomy class at Racine’s Prairie School. Three boys chose to examine digital pictures taken by a high-powered telescope—one picture per hour for four hours each of three nights—and imaged on their computer screens as a kind of slow-motion movie. The students watched with an eye for changes across that field of sky.

They sighted what they thought to be four previously unmapped celestial bodies. Immediately they reported their findings to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., the international authority on known objects in the solar system. By Jan. 15, the center confirmed that Vanden Heuvel’s students had discovered four new asteroids.

Physics and astronomy department

Calvin Observatory

“It is certainly a rarity for high school students to discover asteroids; 99.9 percent are found by professional astronomers,” Vanden Heuvel said.

Vanden Heuvel himself falls in that same rare class of non-professional discoverers. In September 2003, when he was a senior at Calvin, Vanden Heuvel used the then-new telescope in the dome of the Science Building to identify a new asteroid, the first person at Calvin ever to do so. Since then, Calvin students and faculty have discovered 166 more asteroids using a telescope at a dark-sky site in Rehoboth, N.M., that they operate from campus by remote control.

Vanden Heuvel asked his mentor at Calvin, astronomy professor and observatory director Larry Molnar, for three nights’ worth of images (sent over the Internet) from that telescope. It was the high quality of these photos that allowed Vanden Heuvel’s students to identify the objects—10,000 times fainter than the faintest star the unaided eye can see—as new asteroids. That, plus Vanden Heuvel’s expertise.

“If you don’t know how to look for an asteroid, it’s impossible to find one,” Vanden Heuvel noted. “Thanks to Larry we had the right images, and with the experience I brought to them, the students knew what to look for.”

The four asteroids Vanden Heuvel’s students discovered have been assigned a provisional number. After about four years of further professional observation, the boys may name the asteroids. (The asteroid Vanden Heuvel found while at Calvin is now officially named Asteroid 128177 Griffioen, after former dean and physics chair Roger Griffioen.)

Hundreds of thousands of asteroids have been discovered, Vanden Heuvel said, and there are untold millions in our solar system. “The more asteroids and their orbits we know about and can study, the more information we have about how the solar system might have formed.”

For scientific purposes, Vanden Heuvel continued, his students’ asteroids “are just a few more data points on the orbit graphs. The real significance of the discovery is its significance to these three boys and the excitement it’s brought to them. It’s really opened their eyes.”

For Vanden Heuvel that’s confirmation of the hard choice he made to leave a PhD program in research astronomy and instead teach the subject to high school students. “I’ve always wanted to communicate the wonder I feel at the amazing universe God has created. It’s really satisfying to be doing that.”