SkyCenter and Catalina Sky Survey Offer Asteroid Workshop on Mount Lemmon

Amateur astronomers will work alongside professionals who lead in NEO discoveries.
March 20, 2009
Observing Asteroids and NEOs Workshop
April 2-4
Mount Lemmon SkyCenter
The Catalina Sky Survey opens the 60-inch Mount Lemmon telescope for another nightly search for near-Earth objects. (Lori Stiles)
The Catalina Sky Survey opens the 60-inch Mount Lemmon telescope for another nightly search for near-Earth objects. (Lori Stiles)
Artist's concept of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.
Artist's concept of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.

University of Arizona astronomers who lead the world in finding potentially hazardous asteroids will help teach a workshop on observing asteroids and near-Earth objects at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson early next month.

Astronomers from Steward Observatory's Mount Lemmon SkyCenter and from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory's Catalina Sky Survey will give participants hands-on experience in observing, image processing and data analysis. Participants will use the SkyCenter's state-of-the-art 24-inch RC Optical Systems telescope for observing and its new Learning Center classroom and lodging facility.

Master astrophotographer and SkyCenter public programs coordinator Adam Block and Catalina Sky Survey astronomers will host the workshop, being held April 2-4.

Workshop participants will learn about asteroids and threats posed by NEOs, how to astrometrically measure minor planets' orbits, how to report measurements and collaborate in NEO surveys with professional astronomers, and more about the process for reporting and naming new discoveries.

Participants also will collaborate directly with professional astronomers as they conduct the Catalina Sky Survey, known as CSS, using the UA's 60-inch reflector telescope at the Mount Lemmon site. The 60-inch telescope, which is only a hundred feet away from the 24-inch telescope, is one of the most productive CSS telescopes.

Led by Steve Larson and Ed Beshore of the Lunar and Planetary Lab, the CSS team has discovered about 70 percent of all near-Earth objects found in the past three years.

"When we search for NEOs, our goal is to determine if a new object will ever pose a collision threat to Earth," Beshore said. "To know this, we have to determine a precise orbit, and that requires many observations over a period of time.

"We can make these observations ourselves, but that takes time away from our key strength, which is discovery," he added. "So surveys like the Catalina Sky Survey have long depended on the contributions of skilled amateurs to make follow up observations of new NEO discoveries.

"We hope this workshop encourages experienced amateur astronomers to collaborate more with professional astronomers," Beshore said. "With the new educational and public outreach programs and facilities at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, this clinic seemed an ideal match. It's going to be both important and fun."

Last October, the CSS team became the first to discover an asteroid before it impacted Earth. Amateur and professional observatories made more than 500 follow-up observations in the following hours, enabling astronomers to predict when and where the impact would be.

Fragments of the tiny asteroid, which was only 6 feet across and disintegrated over the remote deserts of Sudan, were recently recovered by scientists who combed the desert looking for the remnants.

"The fragments promise to be enormously valuable to researchers because they can help tie observations of recovered meteorites to observations of asteroids in space," Beshore said. "This could be an example of a meteoritic Rosetta Stone."

He added, "Without our ability to immediately report new discoveries, and without the help of amateurs to follow them up, this recovery would have never been made."

The "Observing Asteroids and Near Earth Objects" workshop costs $725, which includes transportation, food, accommodations, workshop materials, and a tour of Steward Observatory's world-famous Mirror Lab underneath the east wing of the UA football stadium.

Participants will need to provide their own laptop computers, which must meet the minimum system requirements listed on the workshop registration page.

Registration can be made online at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter Web site or at the Catalina Sky Survey Web site.