Help astronomers hunt for near-Earth asteroids

Anyone with an internet connection can become an asteroid hunter, thanks to a new citizen science project launched this month: The Daily Minor Planet.

Astronomers from Catalina Sky Survey are collecting high-resolution snapshots of potential asteroid and comet detections. Currently, their ground-based telescope atop Mount Lemmon in the US takes about 1,000 images per night – far too many for scientists to examine alone.

”I thought it would be great if people could do what we do every night,” says Carson Fuls, senior operations engineer and scientist for the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey, who heads the project.

“We see this website as throwing open the doors: Do you want to look for asteroids, too? If so, come on in.”

Catalina Sky Survey is a NASA-funded project with the mission of specifically tracking and discovering near-Earth objects, or NEOs.

The process of spotting a new NEO and reporting it is time sensitive, and astronomers can lose track of them if there is no immediate follow-up on their discovery. That’s because NEOs have highly elliptical orbits that only bring them close to Earth every three or four years. 

“NEOs move so erratically that it’s easy to miss them,” says Catalina Sky Survey director Eric Christensen.

Sensitive software ranks detected moving objects from most to least likely to be an asteroid, but Fuls says they “are missing a certain number of objects because they simply didn’t rank high enough in the algorithm.”

Now, participants without any prior training or expertise can create an account on Zooniverse (a citizen science web platform) and, after a basic tutorial, pick out moving asteroids from these sets of images.

Each image set contains four exposures, taken six or seven minutes apart, which were identified as noteworthy by the software spotting a moving speck of light from one image to the next.

This may or may not be light reflected from a faraway comet or asteroid, and it’s up to citizen scientists to make the call. Is it a bona fide asteroid? Or a false detection caused by twinkles in the star-studded background, dust on the telescope mirror, or other causes?

Though it isn’t a problem if people don’t know the correct answer every time, as the system relies on strength in numbers.

“With enough people participating, you can establish a general consensus, so there’s less margin of error,” says Christensen.

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