Learn how to find space rocks with the Asteroid Observer's Program

Learn how to find asteroids and comets through the Amateur Observer’s Program. Tracking the faint points of light moving slowly across the night sky doesn’t just challenge your amateur astronomy skills - professional astronomers depend on amateurs to make observations they can’t do themselves.

Defining an asteroid’s orbit, rotation, and shape requires dozens - even hundreds - of observations. Professional astronomers can’t afford to use their big-budget observatories for such an intensive effort. Instead they rely on amateur astronomers to make those observations. But as the search for near Earth asteroids heats up, the professionals want to get more amateurs involved.

The comet Temple 1 as seen by Nasa's Deep Impact spacecraft. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/UMD 

The comet Temple 1 as seen by Nasa's Deep Impact spacecraft. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/UMD 

Planetary scientists at the University of Maryland led the science teams for several Nasa comet missions. When Deep Impact visited comet Tempel 1 and Epoxi visited comet Hartley 2, the scientists needed ground-based observations to match the data coming from their spacecraft. So they created the Amateur Observer’s Program to get more amateurs involved in comet and asteroid observations.

The AOP provides online observing guides at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. You can start with visual observing with binoculars and telescopes. As you build your skills, the AOP guides teach you how to use digital cameras to track asteroids and even make scientific observations. You can submit your observations to the AOP gallery to share with other amateurs.

The trail of red dots near the center of this image is an asteroid drifting across the fixed stellar background. Nasa scientists created this image using the NeoWise space telescope, but amateurs collect the same kind of data using their backyard telescopes. Credit: Nasa/JPL-CalTech

The trail of red dots near the center of this image is an asteroid drifting across the fixed stellar background. Nasa scientists created this image using the NeoWise space telescope, but amateurs collect the same kind of data using their backyard telescopes. Credit: Nasa/JPL-CalTech

Observing asteroids lets amateurs make real contributions to science and helps the professionals track near Earth asteroids that could threaten Earth. The Amateur Observer’s Program provides a great introduction to get you started.

Read these Small Steps to Space articles to learn more about ways pros and amateur asteroid hunters work together: 

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