National Science Foundation
Media contact: Lee Herring, (703) 306-1070, firstname.lastname@example.org
Program contact: Joe Stewart, (703) 306-1613, email@example.com
NSF PR 98-79 November 20, 1998
High School Students Discover Distant Asteroid Using NSF Telescope and
High school students have discovered a previously unidentified celestial
object in the Kuiper Belt using images from the National Science Foundation's
(NSF) 4-meter Blanco Telescope in Chile.
Heather McCurdy, Miriam Gustafson and George Peterson of Northfield Mount
Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts, one of six Asteroid Search Teams
at the school participating in NSF's innovative Hands-On Universe Program,
found and verified the distant object. It was approximately 100 miles in
diameter and now is officially called 1998 FS144.
Astronomy teacher Hughes Pack directed the students' search of computer
images provided by the Berkeley National Lab's Supernova Cosmology Program.
A collaborating team, Stacey Hinds and Angel Birchard, students from
Pennsylvania's Oil City Area High School, confirmed the location of 1998
FS144 for their peers at Northfield Mount Hermon. The Oil City students
were led by teacher Tim Spuck, a 1998 Pennsylvania Christa McAuliffe Fellow.
How significant is the find?
"Only about 72 such objects had been identified in the Kuiper Belt," says
Pack. Kuiper Belt Objects, found beyond Neptune, are generally believed to
be remnants dating to the formation of our solar system.
"This is a fantastic piece of science, of education, of discovery," said
Hands-On Universe founder and astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker of Lawrence
Berkeley National Lab and The Lawrence Hall of Science. He added, "The
Northfield students' discovery has shown that all students from a broad
range of backgrounds can make solid, exciting and inspiring scientific
"These students had the opportunity to operate like real astronomers," said
NSF program officer Joseph Stewart. Star images were obtained by the students
via computer from Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, Stewart
said. Students then used visual inspection and special Hands-On Universe
"One of the historically limiting factors in astronomy has been simply
not having enough eyes available to inspect all the useful images that
astronomers collect," he said, "but, it's very exciting that these kids are
contributing to real science, performing actual science in the classroom!"
They are able to measure the distance of stars and track supernova, for
"This generous sharing of data by the Supernova Cosmology Program scientists,"
said Pack, "is serving dual purposes, because scientists at the Supernova
Cosmology Group are using the data to find supernova while students use the
same data to search for very faint asteroids."
"The Kuiper Belt has the potential to tell us a great deal about how the
solar system originated and evolved and how it compares to others," says
Brian Marsden of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Marsden received the data from Pack and confirmed the discovery.
Begun in 1990, Hands-On Universe is now based at the University of
California-Berkeley in the Lawrence Hall of Science. Cerro Tololo Inter-
American Observatory is one of four divisions of the National Optical
Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), operated by the Association of Universities
for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc., under cooperative agreement with
For pictures of KBO 1998 FS144 see: http://astronomy.geecs.org. For more
information on the Hands-On Universe Project see: http://hou.lbl.gov.