Amateur asteroid hunters help NASA monitor endangered space rocks

In the Mojave Desert of Southern California, Bob Stevens has a sweeping view of the universe, with space rocks shining in all directions.

But Stevens is determined to make sense of that mess. Some of his recent projects: tracking an asteroid suspected of having a moon; Co-author of a few scientific papers on asteroids in the center of Jupiter; And he watches an unusual asteroid that appears to be landing rather than spinning like a top.

Sounds like a full time job, but that’s just his hobby. Stephens, 66, an accountant, is slowly retiring.

“I fell into a bad crowd and hooked up with a group of professional astronomers,” he told Mashable.

People like Stevens are called “amateur hunters”. They live for the thrill of hunting down the rocky debris left over from the formation of the Solar System about 4.6 billion years ago. Most of those ancient remains are too far away to pose a threat to the Earth. But the slim chance of an existential crisis motivates many to join in watching the planetary neighborhood.

Bob Stevens, an amateur astronomer in California, helps professionals describe asteroids as a hobby.
Credit: Bob Stevens

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Countries are developing warning systems and defense strategies, should an asteroid or comet stumble into orbit that could endanger civilization. As a test, NASA launched a spacecraft in November, known as the DART mission, to deliberately crash into a harmless asteroid in deep space in an attempt to alter its course. DART is expected to hit in late September or early October.

Hobbyists used to spot new asteroids left and right, but that period pretty much ended two decades ago when NASA invested in professional surveys to observe most of the sky. (These surveys now find hundreds of large NEOs annually.) Today there are largely two camps of hobbyists: those who confirm asteroids discovered by professionals, and those who answer important questions about them, like how fast they spin, do they have anything spinning About them and how do they look?

Their efforts play a critical role in crowdsourcing planetary defense, especially given the limited time in professional observatories to conduct this research. Scientists currently know about 30,000 near-Earth objects, including 10,000 more than 460 feet away. They estimate that among these giant rocks, about 15,000 more are waiting to be discovered.

planetary defense

That’s why The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing space science, has awarded more than $500,000 in grants to non-professional astronomers to upgrade or improve their equipment, said Bruce Bates, its chief scientist. Professionals desperately need asteroid hunters to collect accurate measurements over hours, days, and even weeks to predict orbits and determine if objects could collide with Earth.

“If you take [amateurs] “Far away, you miss things. That’s dangerous in this world,” Bates said.

“If you take [amateurs] Far away, you miss things. This is dangerous in this world.”

It’s hard to think of asteroid hunters as mere hobbyists. They don’t just pull a telescope out of their wardrobe once a year and point it at the sky. Many of them have set up elaborate observatories and are equipped with high-powered telescopes. Wherever the lenses were, they installed sophisticated cameras.

This allowed Stephens, who lives within 100 miles of his group’s observatory of 13 telescopes, the Center for Solar System Studies, to do astronomy from home, looking at computer screens every half hour or so.

Few people in this arena had their eyes glued to the domains anymore. With its automation and remote control capabilities, there is hardly any need for professionals on site.

The Center for the Study of the Solar System conducts research

The Center for Solar System Studies is conducting a search for asteroids using an observatory made up of 13 telescopes.
Credit: Bob Stevens

“The dirty little secret is that astronomers sit in domes all night, yeah, now and then [they] Stevens, who has visited many of the world’s largest observatories, said you’re pressing a button or something, but in reality, you’re just sitting there looking around on Facebook. “You play music, you try to do anything and everything to stay up all night.”

“The dirty little secret is that astronomers sit in domes all night, yeah, now and then [they] You reach in and hit a button or something, but in reality, you’re just sitting there looking around on Facebook. ”

Gary Hogg, another amateur asteroid hunter, has a shorter trip to his telescopes. One, the Sandlot Observatory, is located literally in his backyard. His club is located in Northeast Kansas, the Farpoint Observatory, about 20 or 30 miles away. Between the two, he and his fellow asteroid hunters received about 1,000 designations from the Minor Planet Center.

Hug and Stephens’ passion for astronomy began in childhood, with both men hanging telescopes for love and jobs. Their stories reflect each other in surprising ways.

Both received three-inch reflecting telescopes as Christmas presents when he was a child. Both took astronomy classes in college which kindled the fire again. They both consider looking at Saturn and its rings as one of the “drug portals” in their addiction. Both resumed their hobbies in the late nineties.

Old and new telescopes

For Hug, 71, his initial interest was less about the universe and more about magnification. He was fascinated by looking through the viewfinder and reading a street sign—albeit upside down and behind it—from a block away. This love of tinkering and learning how things work led him to eventually become a mechanic, someone who makes tools and parts for mechanical equipment.

These skills came in handy later when he was building his backyard observatory. The telescope, protected under an overhead roof, weighs about 1,200 pounds.

“I put a lot of heavy metals in it,” he said. “Not much music but just plain, heavy metal.”

man working on telescope

Gary Hogg, 71, works on his backyard telescope at Sandlot Observatory.
credit: Gary Hogg

By necessity, Stevens had to develop manual skills as well. As a college student living at home, he used his father’s shop tools to build a telescope. Within four years, he had one of the biggest clubs in the astronomy club. The telescope climbed onto a trailer and moved it around the local mountains, in an attempt to capture dazzling images of the sky.

“It looked like a cannon, like a piece of artillery,” he said. “I was always afraid the cops would stop me.”

“It looked like a cannon, like a piece of artillery. I was always afraid the cops would stop me.”

Both say they cannot become asteroid hunters as they are today without their wives supporting their expensive and time-consuming hobby. The three Hogg children, none of whom learned astronomy, have less than rosy memories of when they were pulled out of bed in the middle of the night to stand in the cold and look at what Dad found.

But in 1998, Hogg discovered an asteroid from the main belt, which means that it is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Hough said he named it after his wife, Cynthia, which helped her satisfy his hobby, though she often scoffed at having a “big, fat rock” named after her.

Now settled into his retirement, he often leaves the dinner table for the laundry room, where he “leaves to save the world again.” This is where Hug watches telescopes from a computer screen. Many nights, he spends five or six hours looking at what’s going to happen, drinking coffee and waking up awake to the gurgling of a washing machine.

He ignores sleep, telling himself that he will recover during the rainy season.

The starry sky in Kansas

Gary Hogg photographed the sky from his backyard in Kansas.
credit: Gary Hogg

A potentially dangerous asteroid

But sometimes adrenaline is all he needs to stay awake.

On a cold, clear night in January 2013, he found a “potentially dangerous asteroid”. Most asteroids have no consequences for Earth, but a small percentage of large asteroids lie within 4.6 million miles of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This was estimated to be at least as large as the Statue of Liberty.

He rushed to present his data to the Minor Planet Center, which beat the Catalina Sky Survey, a NASA-funded program based at the University of Arizona, by several hours. Like ships passing by at night, he told his wife the news as he crawled into bed and she was starting her day.

Finding such an important and rare thing was one of the most exciting moments of his life. It feels like digging for gold or finding diamonds in a junk pile.

“Asteroids are in the main belt, while they’re fun to spot, they’re kind of a dime-a-dozen,” he said.

He often leaves the dinner table for the laundry room, where he goes to save the world again.

Among his accomplishments, Hogg also discovered a comet, a dirty, icy ball that formed in the outer solar system, along with fellow club member, Graham Bell. Now known as Comet Hug-Bell 178P, it is a faint comet whose orbit is determined by Jupiter’s gravity and returns every seven years.

Little world of astronomy

Stevens received trophies as well (as well as his namesake asteroid), but some of the highlights of his asteroid hunting were the special people he met along the way.

Starry sky over the Mojave Desert

Bob Stevens photographs the starry night sky over the Mojave Desert in California.
Credit: Bob Stevens

In 2010, he was in northern Chile at the Cerro Tololo Pan American Observatory with astronomer Linda French when they spotted 878 Mildred, a main-belt asteroid notorious for being lost. The asteroid was discovered in 1916 by astronomers Seth Nicholson and Harlow Chapley, who named the rock after his then infant daughter, Mildred.

Asteroid Mildred was rediscovered 75 years later in 1991.

Stephens made a “light curve” on the asteroid, which plotted its brightness as it sailed through space. Such analysis can reveal whether the asteroid is alone or has something else orbiting around it, how fast it is spinning, and whether it is solid or a pile of rubble. A research paper published on the analysis stated that the asteroid is part of the “Mildred family,” a subgroup of bodies made up of possibly 1,200 individuals.

Mildred, the person, didn’t get off the grid.

Through connections in the tight-knit astronomy community, Stevens learned that Mildred, the person, did not get off the grid like its asteroid. Send her a letter with a copy of the paper. It appears that Mildred Chapley-Matthews has followed in her parents’ footsteps, becoming a writer and editor for astronomy books.

“I was shocked when I read your paper to learn that I have a family,” the unborn man wrote in a letter sent to him. “It shows how slow I am while the science is going.”

Stephens later met her in person for lunch to talk at the store.

“Things like this are even more fun than supposed discoveries,” he said.

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