Asteroid Tracker let the public "help" study asteroids for a day

The Asteroid Tracker project let the public “help” scientists study asteroids last week. Scientists with the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGTN) created the project to raise awareness of the risks of asteroid impacts. 

“Taking images of asteroids can be an involved process because they are moving through space,” the LCOGTN education director Edward Gomez said in a press release. “We wanted to simplify this process, making it into a single click that triggers a request for images on Las Cumbres Observatory.” 

“By combining observations made by the public with some of our own we hope to learn about how fast they are rotating and what their surface is made from,” explained Dr Sarah Greenstreet from the observatory’s Near Earth Object team. 

In exchange for your email, the telescope network captured three images of your preferred asteroid: the Earth-approaching 2002 KL6 and the Earth-crossing 2010 NY65. 

I will take their word for it. Somewhere in this three-image animation is the asteroid 2010 NY65. Credit: LCOGTN

More than 500 public requests led to 411 images of 2010 NY65 and 619 images of 2002 KL6. The pages for each asteroid include timelapse animations (better than mine) of the asteroids drifting across the star-filled background of space.

Asteroid Tracker is more “outreachy” than citizen science - the scientists could have scheduled the observations themselves without any “help” from us. It is part of a global effort to raise awareness of the threat posed by near-Earth asteroids. 

Asteroid Day, June 30, celebrates the anniversary of the Tanguska asteroid impact which obliterated an unpopulated region of Russian Siberia in 1908. The organizers hope that public awareness will lead governments to invest more in the search for potentially hazardous asteroids. That is the first step in creating a global action plan for diverting these objects before they hit Earth.

Even if the public did not make an actual scientific contribution, the Asteroid Tracker project will generate real scientific results. In the case of 2010 NY65 the data will help determine the asteroid's density and composition. In the case of 2002 KL6, the data will help refine the asteroid's rotation rate.

If outreach is the only way to justify the telescope time needed to learn about asteroids, then let's get more outreach!