February 1, 2008 Astronomy students looking for supernovae examined photographs and found asteroids. They used both unaided eyes and computer analysis to identify the asteroids. The images were composited from three separate images, one each of green, red, and blue. When combined into one image, asteroids stand out because they move against the background.
In the past, it's always been hard to convince young women and minorities to major in the sciences. A new university mentoring program has not only gotten students interested in majoring in astronomy, it's also helping them get their names in the sky.
These young science enthusiasts are going to need many more monikers to officially name the 1,300 asteroids they've found. The students were initially looking for supernovae as part of program to get young people hooked on science from their first days in college.
"It turns out we were finding more asteroids than supernovae, so we decided we'd do some science with it," says Andrew Becker, a research assistant at the University of Washington in Seattle.
At first, these young researchers used their eyes to find the fast moving rocky celestial bodies. Looking through the sets of images, the students found dozens of asteroids, but they found 1,300 when they automated the process on a computer.
Now the young astronomers are hooked ý and they also have a lot of decisions to make on what to name the asteroids. These student scientists are now looking at the color and orbit of the different asteroids they found and hope to publish research on asteroid families before they graduate.
WHAT ARE ASTEROIDS? Asteroids are not the same as comets. Comets are essentially large, dirty snowballs. They are made of ice and frozen gases, mixed with rocky material and dust, and travel in large oval orbits, sometimes leaving our solar system. In contrast, asteroids are metallic, rocky bodies, without atmospheres, that orbit the Sun, just like planets, but are too small to be considered planets themselves.
There are tens of thousands of them gathered into the main asteroid belt, a donut-shaped ring located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers conclude they are made from primordial rock. Jupiter's strong gravity prevented these small bodies from forming into a planet when the solar system began 4.6 billion years ago.
DEEP IMPACT: Asteroids and comets have routinely collided with Earth since our planet was formed four billion years ago, although these are rarely catastrophic, because most aren't large enough. The total mass of all the asteroids combined is less than that of the Moon. But occasionally a very large asteroid -- a quarter mile wide or more -- will strike with devastating effects, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs. When an asteroid, or part of it, crashes into Earth, it is called a meteorite. There are currently two programs in the US to actively search for these near-earth objects: NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program and Spacewatch at the University of Arizona.
The American Astronomical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.