Major Discovery Made by HSU’s International Astronomical Search Collaboration


Students across the globe have discovered hundreds of previously unknown asteroids during their involvement with Hardin-Simmons University’s International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC, pronounced “Isaac”). It is a much rarer occasion, however, when someone discovers what Tomas Vorobjov discovered last week.  Tomas is from Slovakia and is Director of the IASC Data Reduction Team (IDaRT).

Dr. Patrick Miller, HSU professor of mathematics and the founder of the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, says of Vorobjov’s find, “This is a major, major discovery for IASC,” While Tomas was preparing image sets for students participating in the All-China Asteroid Search Campaign, he noticed an unknown object captured by the planet Jupiter, and this is not the first time he has made a major discovery.

Miller says, “This is the second major discovery for Tomas in the past six months. In April he discovered a trans-Neptunian object, a 200-km boulder of ice and rock located out past Neptune near the orbit of Pluto.”

Vorobjov was processing the IASC images taken at the Sierra Stars Observatory Network (Mt. Lemmon, California) when he discovered the previously unknown comet. Reporting the discovery to the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University, other image data reduction support sites sprang into action to take confirming follow-up images; sites ranging from the Astronomical Research Institute (Westfield, IL); The Faulkes Telescope Project (Wales, UK); and the G.V. Schiaparelli Astronomical Observatory (Italy); as well as the Sierra Stars Observatory Network (Markleeville, CA).

“It is official,” the Minor Planet Center declares, “the discovery of P/2012 T7, otherwise known as Comet Vorobjov!”

What’s so interesting about discovering a comet is, according to Miller, “Essentially when you discover a comet, you have a discovered a piece of the Solar System that dates back to the time of the formation of the planets. Also astronomers believe that comets may have been responsible for the delivery of water to Earth,” he says.

Miller says comets are much rarer than asteroids because only a few wander into the Earth’s part of the Solar System. “Comets are boulders of ice and rock that originate from two reservoirs located in outer reaches of the Solar System,” says Miller. “One extends out past Neptune to a distance of 50-times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The other stretches out about 40,000-times that distance. At any given time there are a hundred or so wandering into the inner Solar System where we reside,” he says.

While few comets are discovered, students participating in IASC have discovered just over 450 previously uncharted asteroids as a result of the program started six years ago by Miller. In that time, the program has grown so much that 230 of those discoveries have come just over the last year.

IASC, an Internet-based space-watching program for high school and college classes, is based at the HSU Holland School of Sciences and Mathematics. Since its beginning in October 2006, serving only five schools from the United States, it has grown to serve more than 500 schools, involving some 7,000 students in 60 countries on six continents.

Miller explains, “The objective of the search campaign is two-fold: to keep an eye out for objects in space that could be potentially dangerous to Earth, and to prepare young scientists for future endeavors.”

Under the guidance of their teachers, students analyze images with free software tools, searching for new asteroids and confirmations of near-Earth objects. Some recent asteroid search campaigns have included students from Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, China, England, Germany, Greece, India, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sao Tome, Taiwan, United States, and Uruguay.

IASC is currently run with a staff of volunteer astronomers, but has the ability to double in the number of schools it serves, says Miller.

Miller couldn’t wait to tell participating students across the globe about Tomas’ discovery. In a letter to all teachers and students participating in the International Astronomical Search Campaign, Miller says, “You can make astronomical discoveries just like Tom. You need to be patient and persistent, but in time you can discover asteroids, near-Earth objects, and even comets of your own.”

Miller says, “The granddaddy of all of the comets will be visible in December 2013. This will be an historic event not seen since 1680. The comet in that instance will be as bright as a full moon, and visible (perhaps) during the day. Unfortunately IASC didn't discover that beast, a couple of Russians have that honor,” he says.

IASC’s collaborators include:

IASC is a collaboration of Hardin-Simmons University (Abilene, TX), Lawrence Hall of Science (University of California at Berkeley), Astronomical Research Institute (Westfield, IL), Global Hands-On Universe Association (Portugal), Sierra Stars Observatory Network (Markleeville, CA), Tarleton State University (Stephenville, TX), The Faulkes Telescope Project (Wales), Yerkes Observatory (Williams Bay, WI), Western Kentucky University (Bowling Green, KY), Las Cumbras Observatory (Santa Barbara, CA), G.V. Schiaparelli Astronomical Observatory (Italy), and Astrometrica (Austria). Special project collaborations include the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (University of Hawaii), National Astronomical Observatories of China (Beijing), Astronomers Without Borders (United States), Space Generation Advisory Council (Vienna, Austria) and Target Asteroids! (University of Arizona, Tucson).


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