High school students on asteroid patrol for NASA

Their findings could help predict Earthly asteroid hits.

Salt Lake Tribune

AMERICAN FORK, Utah — The students of American Fork High School get up pretty early to discover an asteroid.

How early? The 34 students on science teacher Curtis Craig’s “Caveman team” of the Killer Asteroid Project arrive to upload their star-measuring software and asteroid database long before school starts. Then begins the long, arduous process of observing telescopic images for asteroid activity. Taking three images shot 20 minutes apart, they sequence them in motion. A small change in the image may signal asteroid movement. Recording the coordinates of that movement on a grid, students extrapolate the trajectory, then submit their reports to Harvard University’s Minor Planet Center, which cues up its telescope to students’ reported coordinates. If the center’s telescope finds an image to match those coordinates, a new asteroid discovery is born.

Months might pass before a discovery, but the momentous potential for discovery awaits.

“That’s when drudgery becomes exciting,” said Craig, whose school is one of the participants in NASA’s worldwide Killer Asteroid Project.

If they’re lucky, they might discover a new asteroid. According to the European Space Agency, there are an estimated 1.1 million to 1.9 million total asteroids. More than 180,000 orbit the sun in patterns predictable enough to be numbered, according to NASA. Craig’s daughter Karlee, a junior in the school where her father teaches, was lucky enough this spring to discover asteroid K07VK1S.

“It took a lot of patience,” she said. “You have to know what you’re looking for.”

If they’re really lucky, their discoveries might help predict the trajectories of asteroids with the potential to one day hit Earth. That hasn’t happened yet to any of the teams involved in the NASA project. “But what an honor to serve humanity,” Craig notes.

And if the students are really, really lucky? They could discover an asteroid headed straight for Earth, perhaps the sort that may have rid our planet of dinosaurs millions of years ago. There was a close call in March 2004, when the asteroid Apophis came within 24,000 miles of striking distance.

NASA has been charged with identifying the most dangerous asteroids for years, so the agency saw no danger in training the next generation of asteroid hunters. The Killer Asteroid Project is in its second year at American Fork High School, making it part of an international project that includes universities in Russia, Sweden, Spain and other countries. In recognition of the four asteroids discovered by Craig’s students, NASA sent American Fork High School an award early this month.

“The discoveries they’re making are totally harmless, but the discoveries they make of new asteroids could help refine and establish an orbit that can tell us if there’s future potential for impact with Earth,” said Robert Holmes, a NASA research scientist.

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