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Dr. Patrick Miller

Department of Mathematics Holland School of Science & Mathematics Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas 79698, USA

MPE News

Successful hunt for asteroids in the classroom

January 05, 2011

For the past few months, the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope, designed to become the world's most powerful asteroid hunter, teamed up with school children from the USA and Germany to discover and study asteroids - clumps of rock, between several and a few hundred kilometers in size, that cruise through our Solar System. At the close of the campaign, which was coordinated by the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, the students can look back on exciting eight weeks of asteroid search, which included the confirmation of four "Near-Earth Objects" (asteroids passing relatively close to Earth) and the discovery of what could turn out to be more than 170 previously undiscovered asteroids.

<p><span class="small">Pan-Starrs 1 Telescope on Hawaii</span></p>
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Pan-Starrs 1 Telescope on Hawaii

As the 1.8 meter (60 inch) Pan-STARRS 1 telescope (PS1), one of the most powerful current survey telescopes, scans the night sky, its 1400 Megapixel digital camera takes more than 500 exposures per night. Between October 25 and December 21, 2010, some of its data has found its way into classrooms in the USA and in Germany, where high-school students have used it to track known asteroids, and also to discover candidate objects that could be previously unknown asteroids. When Hawaiian skies were overcast, schools also received data taken with a telescope operated by the Astronomical Research Institute (ARI) in Westfield, Illinois.

Over the Internet, the participating schools received astronomical images of the same region of the sky, taken an hour apart. During this hour, the image of a main belt asteroid will have moved noticeably (that is, by about 100 pixels) relative to the distant background stars. The students examined the images for exactly this kind of position change, carefully sorting image artifacts from moving celestial objects, and reported back to the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, whose volunteers then checked the results and arranged for follow-up observations.

Some of the most interesting student observations during the project concerned "Near-Earth Objects" (NEO): asteroids or similar objects whose orbits bring them into the inner Solar System. Some NEOs might turn out to be potential "killer asteroids" that are bound to collide with our home planet; finding these is one main goal of the PS1 telescope. In order to keep track of NEOs, at least two separate observations at different times are required. Katharina Stöckler (age 17), an 11th grade student at Gymnasium Neckargemünd near Heidelberg, explains: "We obtained a 'NEO confirmation' for the asteroid 2010 UR7 - the second observation ever made of that object, which confirmed the asteroid's existence and gave crucial information about its orbit." Three additional "NEO confirmations" were made during the project; in addition, 64 of the student's observations amounted to the third or fourth time a specific NEO had been observed. All these observations provide important additional data to scientists studying the motion of NEOs.

In the course of the project, the students also observed 151 candidate objects in the Pan-STARRS date (plus an additional 20 candidates in the ARI/Westfield telescope data) that could be newly discovered main belt asteroids, which orbit the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. In one case, students from Benedikt Stattler Gymnasium, a high-school in Bavaria, Germany, discovered 7 such candidate objects in a single night! Before the student's finds are confirmed as discoveries, however, and assigned provisional designation numbers, they will need to be observed again - and some are likely to turn out to have been previously known, after all. Once a newly found object has been observed over at least a whole orbit (which typically lasts 3 to 6 years), it is assigned a definite numerical identifier, and can also be given a proper name.

IASC director Dr. Patrick Miller, of Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, says: "Pan-STARRS images contain an amazing amount of data, providing students with opportunities for literally hundreds of new discoveries. With this amount of data, we could expand our campaign to a thousand schools a year, and tens of thousands of students, which is very exciting, and is an unbelievable opportunity for high schools and colleges!"

Pan-STARRS Project Manager Dr. William Burgett adds: "It is incredibly exciting that we can use a state-of-the-art system such as Pan-STARRS to allow students around the world to learn astronomy with real research quality. We are committed to making this a valuable and enjoyable experience for both the students and their teachers, and we hope this is only the first step in eventually involving hundreds of schools around the world."

Background information

The Pan-STARRS-IASC campaign uses data obtained with the Pan-STARRS 1 (PS1) telescope, a 1.8 meter (60-inch) diameter telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, designed to automatically search the skies for objects that either move or change their brightness from night to night. It contains the world's largest digital camera, with 1,400 megapixels; each night Pan-STARRS collects about 1,000 DVDs' worth of data. Over the next three years, PS1 is expected to discover about 100,000 asteroids and to determine if any of them are on a collision course with Earth. It will catalog five billion stars and 500 million galaxies. PS1 will also be used to compile the most comprehensive digital map of the 75 percent of the universe visible from Hawaii. PS1 is the experimental prototype for the larger PS4 telescope, which will have four times the power of PS1 and is planned for Mauna Kea.

The Pan-STARRS Project is being led by the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Hawaii. The PS1 Surveys have been made possible through contributions of the Institute for Astronomy, the University of Hawai'i, the Pan-STARRS Project Office, the Max-Planck Society and its participating institutes, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, as well as other international contributors.

For more information about PanSTARRS see http://pan-starrs.ifa.hawaii.edu/public/

The International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC, pronounced "Isaac") is an educational outreach program for high schools and colleges, provided at no cost to the participating schools. The present campaign builds on the Global Hands-on Universe (GHOU) collaboration. GHOU is an educational program that enables students to investigate the Universe while applying tools and concepts from science, math, and technology.

For more information about IASC see http://iasc.hsutx.edu/
For more information about GHOU see http://www.globalhou.net/

The German schools of the Pan-STARRS-IASC search campaign are coordinated and supported by the Center for Astronomy Education and Outreach (Haus der Astronomie) in Heidelberg (in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg and the Starkenburg-Sternwarte Heppenheim), the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, and the Technical University Munich.

The participating international teams of schools are:

1. Luitpold-Gymnasium, München Ranger High School, Ranger, Texas
2. Christoph-Probst-Gymnasium, München May High School, May, Texas
3. Benediktinergymnasium, Ettal Vernon High School, Vernon, Texas
4. Benedikt-Stattler-Gymnasium, Bad Kötzting Bullard High School, Bullard, Texas
5. Werdenfels-Gymnasium, Garmisch-Partenkirchen Colleyville Heritage High School, Colleyville, Texas
6. St. Anna-Gymnasium, München El Campo High School, El Campo, Texas
7. Helmholtz-Gymnasium, Heidelberg Tarrant County College, Hurst, Texas
8. Gymnasium Neckargemünd, Neckargemünd Brookhaven College, Farmers Branch, Texas
9. Lessing-Gymnasium, Lampertheim Madisonville High School, Madisonville, Texas Baldwin High School, Wailuku, Hawaii
10. Life Science Lab, Heidelberg Collin County College, Plano, Texas

NEO Confirmations (second observation of a specific Near-Earth Object):

Object Name School Observation Date
2010 UR7 Gymnasium Neckargemünd 30 October 2010
2010 UX4 Gymnasium Neckargemünd 30 October 2010
2010 UV7 Tarrant County College, Texas 31 October 2010
2010 UK8 Madisonville High School, Texas 31 October 2010
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