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University of Arizona News Services

Lori Stiles
UA News Services


     Stephen M. Larson

May 4, 1998

UA Catalina Sky Survey to make speedy searches for faint near-earth asteroids and comets

Astronomers at The University of Arizona in Tucson who in 1992 started a unique near-Earth asteroid survey in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson are about to begin faster searches for fainter objects in large areas of sky where other such surveys seldom look.

Six years ago, Timothy Spahr and Carl Hergenrother, then UA undergraduate students, with faculty sponsor Stephen M. Larson of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, launched the Bigelow Sky Survey at the university's 16-inch Schmidt telescope near Mount Bigelow, Ariz. It has been a part time photographic survey, inspired by and patterned after the systematic photographic search conducted at the Palomar Observatory Schmidt telescope in southern California by the late Eugene Shoemaker of the U.S.Geological Survey and his wife, Carolyn.

With the photographic system, observers took two images, 30 minutes apart, of the exact same region of the sky, then compared the images under a stereo microscope. Moving objects appeared to "float" above the flat star background. It took 60 minutes to thoroughly scan a pair of films, Larson said.

Program observers Spahr and Hergenrother made the Bigelow survey's most famous discovery, a near-Earth asteroid 200 meters in diameter, or roughly four times the size of the impactor that produced Meteor Crater, Ariz., that missed Earth by about 280,000 miles on May 19, 1996.

Several months ago, Larson's group started a major NASA-funded upgrade of the system and renamed the project the Catalina Sky Survey.

Ultimately, Larson said, "With current and anticipated improvements, we will be able to detect an object in one-fortieth the exposure time needed for photographic observations, or we will be able to detect objects 14 times fainter while covering the same area as film with our new system. And this does not include improvements using software to replace eyeball scanning."

The Catalina Sky Survey is unusual in that program observers hunt for Earth- orbit crossing asteroids and comets above the plane of the ecliptic, or the plane in which the planets revolve.

Other surveys, including the productive and pioneering UA Spacewatch, directed by planetary sciences Professor Tom Gehrels, hunt for near-Earth asteroids along the ecliptic. Most Earth-crossing asteroids can be found when their slightly inclined orbits cross the ecliptic plane twice each orbit so long as they are near enough or bright enough and are observed for a long enough time. Sometimes, they are close enough to the Earth that perspective causes them to appear outside of the ecliptic.

"Away from the ecliptic plane, we don't see as many of these objects because there are fewer of them," Larson said. "But while we don't find as many objects, a higher percentage of those we do find have interesting orbits. We aren't able to detect objects as faint and small as the larger (36-inch) Spacewatch telescope, but we will cover much more area for the brighter and potentially more dangerous asteroids."

Larson now is collecting data to test software that operates an electronic camera on the newly computer-controlled UA Catalina Schmidt telescope. The heart of the camera is a very large, very sensitive 4,096 by 4,096-pixel charge-coupled device (CCD). It is the same type of chip used in Eleanor Helin's Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking program, sponsored jointly by NASA, the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and the U.S. Air Force. The device can record light 50 times fainter than can be captured by the most sensitive photographic film.

The Catalina telescope now electronically images a 3x3-degree field of view, or a square patch of sky equivalent to six lunar diameters on a side. It is capable of finding objects as faint as 20th magnitude, which is approaching the sky background level generated by scattered city light and auroral airglow that brightens Earth's upper atmosphere.

The astronomers take from three to five electronic images of the exact same sky region about 30 minutes apart. When they perfect the performance of the telescope, they will be able to precisely align the multiple electronic images so that stars and galaxies appear as single stationary sources of light and moving objects are seen to move across the screen.

Other proposed improvements to the Catalina Sky Survey include increasing the telescope's light gathering power with a larger entrance corrector plate, and to increase computer capacity. Each electronic image is 32 megabytes and requires near real-time processing to extract moving objects."We now have this fairly fast computer, but it has to cope with 16 million pixels per image," Larson said.

John Brownlee, a recent graduate of the UA geosciences program, is programming the computer to coordinate the telescope and CCD control with data reduction and object detection. Automation of repetitive tasks and sequence flexibility to compensate for cloudy weather will be major goals.

Spahr recently finished his dissertation, which included data from the Bigelow Sky Survey, and has been awarded his doctorate from the University of Florida. Graduate school has kept him away from Tucson during most of the upgrade, but he soon will rejoin the survey effort he initiated. This time, he will have state-of-the-art survey tools.

The Catalina Schmidt telescope is available to the sky survey team most of the time, so only the bright moon limits observing time, Larson added. "With enough money to hire people, which is the big operational expense, we could observe 21 nights a month."

Ideally, the several near-Earth asteroid surveys could cover the sky two-to- three times a month, he said. "The Catalina Sky Survey team anticipates making significant contributions to the NASA near-Earth asteroid inventory effort."

Last Updated: November 26, 2003
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