This image shows the NEO 1999 LN28, imaged on July the 11, 1999. The time interval between these two frames is of 7 minutes.
In this section we will introduce some stories related to the world of astronomy. If you have an interesting experience you would like to share with us, feel free to contact us!
28 Feb. 2002. This month we present the fascinating experience of Loren Ball, who has discovered 82 previously unknown asteroids.
An Amateur Story
(Submitted by Loren C. Ball, Oct. 2001)
(The original article was published on "The Huntsville Times" )
It's after 10 p.m. when Loren Ball walks into his rec room, past a pool table surrounded by walls of science tomes, through a side door (it's like going backstage), climbs steep, plain wooden steps and (watch your head) through a trap door, and then on out beyond Mars. There's a telescope up here, where most folks hide the attic. Ball cut a hole in the roof of his house on Emerald Lane in the upscale Crown Point subdivision and installed an observatory, complete with the signature dome.
If it's a clear night, with no bright moon to wash out the sky, he'll be up here for hours, until 4 a.m., hunting asteroids. He discovered his first - now known as 2000PS8 - last August. He's found 22 more since, and fully expects to find hundreds before he reaches the limitations of his high-tech equipment.
"I've always been interested in asteroids, but I used to jus track them down and look at them," he said. "There wasn't any science being done. Just looking." Ball, 52, has been looking for a long time. "I've always had a telescope, since before kindergarten," he said. He doesn't know why; he doesn't remember anyone in his family influencing his interest in the stars as he grew up in Oklahoma. Still, "I can't remember a life without telescopes."
That didn't lead to a career in astronomy, though. He followed another, more lucrative interest and became a jeweler. He had stores in Oklahoma and later in Arkansas, where he met his wife, Judy, who was also a jeweler. They've been married nine years, were able to retire early and moved here about seven years ago to be closer to her parents, Ball said. Otherwise, they might be in West Texas or someplace the night sky is clearer, less polluted by light and weather. The lot they built their house on was chosen so he'd have a better chance for an observatory, with Wheeler Wildlife Refuge beginning a few hundred yards to the west and Burning Tree Country Club adjacent to the east and south.
Not every spouse would be so accommodating about picking an address that's telescope-friendly, or having a white dome sit atop their home. "All the neighborhood knows we're both eccentrics," said Judy, smiling. "I have very limited interest in it. I have developed a little more since I have known Loren, but it's really his hobby, his vocation, and he enjoys it."
The neighbors have also been accommodating, said Ball. He makes sure kids and other visitors get to climb the stairs into the dome and take a peek though the telescope at Saturn's rings, or Jupiter and its moons. That kind of sky viewing is about all the eyepiece gets used for these days. Ball is long past simply looking. For asteroid hunting he uses a very, very light sensitive charge-coupled device, or CCD, attached to his 16-inch telescope to take electronic pictures of the stars. He downloads and processes the images on a laptop computer, which also controls the position and movement of the telescope. As he hunts down the space rocks he uses the same database used to point the Hubble Space Telescope.
It takes him about an hour to get ready, to program his computer for the slice of sky he'll be scouring that night, and to let the CCD cool down. It's more sensitive at cold temperatures, and his equipment has a built-in thermoelectric cooler. Then he'll work through the night. He'll take a six-minute exposure of the area he's studying, allowing the faint light reflecting from asteroids or generated by dim stars to collect on the CCD. Astronomers used to do the same thing using film, as long exposures reveal objects far too dim to be seen by the naked eye. Ball's computer-driven telescope finds a guide star and makes micro-movements during the exposure to allow for the rotation of the earth.
Ball downloads the picture to the computer, where it's greatly enhanced. The stars look like a spattering of black dots against a white space when he's finished. Then he does it all again, taking another six-minute exposure of the exact same area of the sky. By taking two or three pictures, 15 minutes apart, then overlaying them, or "blinking" between them, he can see if something has moved against the background of stationary stars. >If one of the dots has moved, it's probably an asteroid or comet. By checking it against the known objects in his computer's database, he knows whether it's something already known, or if he has a new discovery.
False alarmsIf he thinks it's a new one, he goes through the same process again within the next couple of nights, to verify his data before emailing it to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, at the Smithsonian Observatory on the Harvard University grounds. "It's very difficult, in this climate, to find a two-to-four night window where you can go up and get images repeatedly," he said. High clouds, haze and any number of things can block the faint light.
He's had several false alarms. Sometimes he'd find one, but someone else would spot it and beat him turning it in to the MPC. A couple of times he has sent in what he thought was a discovery, only to find it was an asteroid someone else had found, but was subsequently "lost." Those don't disappoint him, because it's important for astronomers to know where the asteroids are, to refine their predicted orbits and make further studies.
"Really, from a science standpoint, it's just as advantageous - maybe even more so - to find lost ones than it is to find new ones," said Ball. That's important to Ball. Simply looking through the scope lost its luster years ago. Now, making a contribution to science, to astronomical knowledge, is his goal. He and other "amateur" astronomers contribute in a number of ways, said Gareth Williams, associate director of the MPC.
"The majority of active astronomical sites are amateur," he said. As far as the MPC is concerned, "once they've proven they can get good astrometry, they're just another observer." Over the last year some 296 astrometry sites worldwide reported to the MPC, he said. There were 877 observations of 125 different objects. Ball's Emerald Lane Observatory ranks about 45th in terms of the number of reports, said Williams. It's obvious that "home" astronomers are using the powerful computers and other tools made available in the last decade to complement the work of professionals.
When Ball found his first asteroid in the middle of that night last August, it came as a complete surprise. "I wasn't looking for it," he said. "I had kind of reduced my mentality to the idea that I'm simply going to find known asteroids, measure them and send in the data to improve their orbits." He had been measuring a asteroid, and as he looked at the image from the telescope he noticed something in the corner that shouldn't be there. "I thought, well surely somebody else has seen it at one point or another, but I'll make sure I get it again tomorrow night." The next night he set the telescope - and there it was again. He sent the data from his sighting off immediately, and "about five minutes later I got an email back from the Minor Planet Center saying 'Congratulations!' "
He'd discovered his first asteroid. "I was on Cloud Nine," he said. "At the time I thought 'This may be it!' " But a few nights later he found another. A few nights after that he found three in one night. "Over a 10-week period I found 23 of them," said Ball. "And then weather socked me in and I haven't been able to do anything." He's looking forward to more good hunting this summer. If all of his discoveries hold up, if they're not later found to be more "lost" asteroids or something else, he'll get to name them. But that's years away.
"The orbit has to be really nailed down to a staggering degree of accuracy," he said, and that takes time.
See, the asteroid is out there between Mars and Jupiter, going around the Sun. And we're going around the sun, too, but we're in a tighter orbit. So it's only about every 14 months or so that Earth is again in a position to see sunlight reflecting from the asteroid. The Minor Planet Center sticklers want that to happen five times before the asteroid gets its official number, and that's when Ball will have the opportunity to name it. ("2000PS8" is a provisional number, that shows the year, the time of year, and the number of the sighting in that period).
He figures one will be named "Decatur," and he'd like to involve area elementary schools in naming others. "Five years from now I hope to have hundreds of them," he said, so there will be plenty of opportunities. Getting to name the asteroids is neat, as is being labelled their discoverer. But knowing more about them is the thing "Over a 10-week period I found 23 (asteroids). And then weather socked me in and I haven't been able to do anything." Loren Ball, asteroid hunter that drives Ball.
An understanding of the nature and origins of the asteroids is important to understanding the origins of the solar system. And, of course, they've been known to hit things. They've played a major role in shaping life on Earth, and an asteroid the size of a football field passes closer to us than the moon at least once a week, said Ball. Maybe studying them will tell us how to move one out of the way.
Mining spaceIn any event, Ball looks at asteroids as potential boons, not something to be afraid of. The smallest asteroid he's found will contain more iron, nickel, platinum and palladium than has ever been mined in the history of civilization on Earth. They're worth trillions, he said. Since it costs a fortune - about $10,000 a pound - to get stuff up into orbit aboard the shuttle, he foresees a time when we'll mine and process building materials from asteroids in space.
The way we're building the space station is like the pilgrims bringing trees over aboard the Mayflower to build houses in the New World. They didn't, and space pilgrims won't either, he said. "It's going to take several generations to do that, but that is what is going to happen, and I want to be in on it," said Ball "I can't be there, 200 years from now, but I can be one of the guys that found them. And it's real exciting for me to be able to do that." He compares the work he's doing up on his roof, spotting and plotting asteroids and their movements, to the work of ancient mapmakers. In centuries past, people would hear reports from sailors, telling of lands and islands they had found so far away they were unreachable to virtually every human being on the planet, except a select few. Those few were the equivalent of our astronauts today.
"Magellan and his guys, the things they did were cutting edge," said Ball. "We think of them as being archaic, in square-sailed ships out there fighting scurvy. But they didn't look at it that way. They felt like their ship was the space shuttle of their era, and it was. "What I'm doing today is the equivalent of what a mapmaker would have been doing," he said. "I am building maps today that are going to tell future generations where to find the resources we're going to use to build things in space."
PS: to date, Loren discovered 83 minor planets.
Sept. 2001 story: discovery of SN 2001el, by Berto Monard
Oct. 2001 story: discovery of Nova Cen 2001, by Bill Liller.
Nov. 2001 story: discovery of Comet COMET 2001 Q2 by Vance Petriew.