Local astronomical observatory completes second year of Near-Earth Asteroid studies

Published 8:00 am Thursday, January 24, 2019

Squirrel Valley Observatory W34, located in Columbus, recently completed its second year of near-earth asteroid studies in support of the Unites States “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan”, and a congressional directive in the “U.S National Space Policy.” 

Since coming online in 2016, the small observatory has partnered with the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center as a designated observatory (W34) in this endeavor.

To date, astrometric data for over 1,300 unique asteroids has been submitted to the MPC. Early data submissions were primarily for testing and calibration purposes. Most of those included multitudes of harmless main belt asteroids.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

However, in 2017, Squirrel Valley Observatory W34 began a concentrated effort to collect astrometric data from near earth asteroids, many of these considered potentially hazardous. Its primary focus was and continues to be the contribution of “confirmation and follow up” astrometric data for newly discovered and existing near-earth asteroids. These are the objects that could pose the greatest risk to the earth.

The majority of NEA discoveries are made by large federally funded sky survey facilities such as Pan-STARRS, and the ATLAS surveys located in Hawaii, Catalina Sky Survey located on Mount Lemmon in Arizona and several other large observatories located around the world. Their job is to scan the skies with specialized wide field instruments for previously unknown near-earth objects.

Once they make a possible discovery, the data is quickly posted to the Minor Planet Center’s NEO confirmation page for independent verification. At that time, it is also submitted to the NASA sponsored JPL Center for Near Earth Object Studies for analysis. 

Confirmation and follow up of these objects are the job of smaller facilities, (in many cases private and unfunded) around the world like SVO. Within hours of discovery, follow up observations are made and submitted.

The large surveys rely heavily on the smaller observatories to provide this additional astrometric data which is critical for determining and refining a precise orbit for these newly found objects, which in turn helps quantify any potential threat to Earth. While the smaller follow up facilities are busy with confirmations, the expensive large sky surveys are then free to continue scanning the skies for additional new objects, the job they are best suited for.

Usually within 24 to 96 hours after discovery, enough follow up data has been collected to determine the type of orbit for the newly discovered asteroid. At that time, a temporary designation is assigned by the MPC, the discovery data and a list of the confirmation observatories involved are published in an IAU Minor Planet Electronic Circular, which is then made available to the scientific community and the public.

Follow up observations of these objects will then continue in order to further refine the orbital elements which are needed to predict orbits for decades and even centuries in the future. The need for continued follow up observations is vital for long term predictions. Just as with all things in the universe, orbits too are subject to unexpected change as they can be influenced by other celestial objects. 

Despite the locally inclement weather in 2018, SVO managed to double its number of discovery confirmation objects from that of 2017. By the close of 2018, SVO data had been published on a total of 412 unique near-earth asteroids that were observed, with 103 of those being direct discovery confirmations of previously unknown near-earth asteroids.

Additional information may be found at svo.space in the minor planet log section of the SVO website and at the website for the IAU Minor Planet Center itself, minorplanetcenter.net.

SVO is one of the smallest facilities contributing to the NEO discovery confirmation process. This has not stopped W34 from being one of the most productive facilities for this field of study in the southeastern U.S. over the past two years, second only to the University of the South Cordell–Lorenz Observatory 850 in Sewanee, Tennessee.

The Southeastern U.S. weather patterns are rarely cooperative for astronomical observations, so one must make good use of the any clear nights that present themselves. It is quite understandable that most minor planet observatories and observatories in general are located in the southwestern U.S. or Hawaii due to the superior sky conditions.

While asteroid data does not typically lend itself to the “pretty pictures” that most of the public likes to see of the night sky, it is important in regards to a greater understanding of the solar system and the universe itself. But of greater significance to the earth and humanity is the benefit of risk assessment for possible future collisions with one or more of these rocky bodies. Early warning is currently mankind’s greatest asset for preparation of a pending impact that could come its way.

After some brief down time for maintenance, 2019 will see Squirrel Valley Observatory W34 resume the collection of astrometric data in support of the nation’s “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan”.

The station will continue to explore funding options that will allow equipment upgrades to increase its near-earth asteroid detection and data output capabilities in the future. At this time, operations are funded solely by the owner.

– Submitted by Randy Flynn