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Amateur astronomers strike it asteroid-rich
Posted: 04 August 2011

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A new project with the Faulkes Telescope Project, part of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT), is allowing amateur astronomers and schoolchildren to team up to find new asteroids and comets.

Nick Howes, along with two of the world's leading amateur observers, Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero, have detected at the time of writing, a total of eleven new asteroids during only four weeks of observations near to and in the same field as previously discovered targets flagged up by the Minor Planet Centre's (MPC) Near Earth Object (NEO) list. This list allows both professional and amateur observers to study NEOs, main belt asteroids and sometimes new comets travelling through our Solar System on unusual orbits.

This image (centre) shows an unusual object imaged by the team, which displayed a cometary like orbit, but asteroidal appearance. The smudge at the bottom is a star, which trailed as the team were tracking on the object. Image: CARA/A.F.A.M/Faulkes Telescope Project/N. Howes/G.Sostero/E.Guido.

“Many of the objects we've found are main belt asteroids which show normal behaviour, but some have shown orbits which are quite fast for a main belt object,” says Howes, Astronomy Now's equipment consultant. “In one recent case an object was seen to be travelling much faster than typical main belt objects, placing it into a different category of asteroid. Then, there are some objects which are clearly more cometary in orbital nature, but show no signs of a visible coma; these may be dormant or inactive comets.”

Comets are also continuing to be hunted and investigated alongside the asteroids, teaching us more about these mysterious bodies. “What we're doing is helping organisations, like Spaceguard, catalogue all known bodies, which will hopefully assist the professional programs if one day we do find something potentially hazardous,” says Howes. “As for the future, mankind will doubtlessly one day explore Mars and the asteroid belt, so we'd like to think we're doing a small bit to assist in space exploration too.”

The instruments on the Faulkes Telescopes, which consist of mirrors almost comparable in size to that of the Hubble Space Telescope's along with newly upgraded CCDs, allow astronomers to detect and track targets as low as magnitude +22. The power of the program not only gives amateur astronomers a chance to get their hands on the data, but students in schools across the UK can also lend a helping hand in our future understanding of these objects.

Faulkes Telescope North, located in Haleakala, Hawaii is an important tool for the new project. Image: Faulkes Telescope Project/Sea West Photo.

“Thanks to the help from schools involved with the Faulkes educational program, we have been able to improve the observing arc and orbital data for these new objects and as a bonus we have received the discovery asterisk from the Minor Planet Centre for many of them,” adds Guido, an Italian amateur astronomer who, with  Giovanni Sostero recently sequenced the evolution of comet Ikeya-Murakami. The team now have multiple asteroids which they will have to eventually assign names to, but which for now have designations assigned by the MPC.

“LCOGT plan to come online with 17 more one-metre telescopes and possibly 40 or so 0.4-metre instruments in the coming years which will be available to amateurs as well as students,” concludes Howes. “So who knows how much data nearly 60 new telescopes will deliver.”

Some of the team's recent observational work can be found at: