How to discover asteroids in your spare time

Roy Tucker has the answer.

Roy Tucker prepares for nightfall with one of several backyard telescopes, a 14-inch Celestron. (Courtesy Roy Tucker)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Tucker: To give you an idea, one of the classes of objects that we are finding in our variable-star discoveries are what are called M-Dwarf Eclipsing Binaries. These are very small, lightweight stars.

Before our survey, there were only like six of these eclipsing binaries known, and we’ve added something like 30 from the first two-year survey. So, each of our two-year surveys—I’m working on the fifth one now—each one of these will yield something like 30 new eclipsing binary M-dwarf systems. That will give you an idea that even though the asteroid field is drying up, there are lots of other things that amateurs can do to productively contribute to the state of our astronomical knowledge.

This project, executed by both amateurs and professionals working together over a period of years with very little funding, has been enormously cost-effective compared to a purely professional effort in which a single night at a professional observatory might cost several thousands of dollars.

A&S: It sounds like a terrific new project. Do you feel any sort of nostalgia, though, for the asteroids? Did you hope to continue with that?

Tucker: Boy. When I was the middle of doing the asteroid searching, it was such a pleasant routine to come home in the evening and look through the images that I’d collected the previous night.

I could spend anywhere from 3 to 5 hours looking through the previous night’s images looking for asteroids, comets, or whatever I could find. And every two years I would move the pointing of the telescopes to look at a new area of sky. And with the changing of the seasons I would see new parts of this region of sky that I was searching—it would be basically a band around the sky 8/10ths of a degree wide—and I would become very familiar with faint galaxies, clouds of glowing gas, things like that. And it was such a privilege to be able to gaze up into the universe. I was seeing objects that were almost a million times fainter than could be seen with the unaided eye.

Even though I was looking for asteroids and comets, my mind would wander, and it was quite something to contemplate that I was gazing across such a vast distance, seeing such marvels.

So, yeah, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and I expect to occasionally do it again, just because it’s so intellectually stimulating. That’s the only way I can put it, I guess. It’s just that now, with the professional surveys, the likelihood of finding anything interesting has fallen quite dramatically, as far as asteroids and comets. In the past year or so they’ve really been beating me to the punch. I guess that’s good, because that basically indicates that the question of finding objects before they hit the earth is being addressed. It’s a matter of going to fainter and fainter objects, which means basically smaller objects. And although the likelihood that some small object will strike the earth is much greater than a large object, nevertheless, the damage they cause would be far less. It’s not so much an extinction-level event, as maybe a city-buster or some bright fireworks. Of course, even if it’s a so-called city-buster, the likelihood is that it’s going to hit out in the ocean somewhere, or some desolate place like Sudan where there isn’t anybody to take notice of it. I was never really worried about the impact threat. I thought of what I was doing as more of an entertaining sport rather than saving the planet or anything like that. It was a fun thing to do with the instruments I had.

A&S:  What to you made it a sport? The competition?

Tucker: It was fun. It was one of those types of endeavors where every once in a while I could get out on the field of play with the big guys—like on a professional ball team—and score a point once in a while. Astronomy is one of those rare human endeavors where, under the right circumstances, an amateur can still score a point, i.e., make a discovery, in spite of all the efforts of the professionals.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus