Some asteroids come dangerously close to Earth. In order to be able to record even more boulders, researchers have developed a special hands-on project.
Munich/Arizona – If you look at the night sky with the naked eye, you can spot stars, planets and the occasional satellite. What you usually don't see, however, are asteroids – chunks of rock tumbling through space. But thanks to a new program created by scientists at the University of Arizona and NASA, anyone can become an asteroid hunter.
Amateur astronomers can discover asteroids via the "Zooniverse" portal
The small rocky formations were left over from the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago, as the European Space Agency (ESA) explains. They are therefore often referred to as minor planets. Scientists believe that there are billions of these lumps of rock. Most of them are located in a main belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the asteroid belt.
Asteroids that cross Earth's orbit are often around 10 to 15 kilometers in size. © NASA/dpa
The term asteroid means "star-like". According to ESA, the rocks were given the name because they could only be perceived as tiny luminous dots with most telescopes. Although the buzzing structures are now much better captured with modern telescopes, many still remain undetected due to the huge number. Thanks to NASA's Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) project, amateur astronomers can now discover and report asteroids via the online portal "Zooniverse".
Researcher explains asteroid project: "People can do what we do every night"
For this purpose, scientists upload telescope images of potential asteroid and comet finds on the website. Anyone with a working internet connection can log in to "Zooniverse" and analyze the photos provided: Is the speck of light just a speck of dust or actually an asteroid? With the help of a "yes" and "no" button, the participant can give his assessment and thus help the experts in their search for the small celestial bodies.
"I thought it would be great if people could do what we do every night," Carson Fuls, a science and technology specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey and leader of the project, said in a statement from the University of Arizona. "We see this website as a door opener: Do you also want to search for asteroids? If so, then come in," Fuls continued.
Near-Earth asteroids in particular need to be detected
Above all, near-Earth asteroids, so-called NEOs (Earth Close Approaches), are of great importance to the experts. In the worst case, they could hit the earth. Just recently, an asteroid scraped past the Earth by a hair's breadth – it came closer to us than the Moon. In 2046, a 50-meter asteroid could actually strike. "NEOs move so erratically that it's easy to miss them," said Eric Christensen, director of the Catalina Sky Survey. This makes it all the more important to document the boulders precisely.
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Fancy a voyage of discovery?
Every night, around one million asteroids are recorded with the help of telescopes
The Catalina Sky Survey uses up to five large, powerful telescopes each night to capture over a million flying rocks. The images in the portal were initially taken from their G96 telescope on Mount Lemmon, north of Tucson. Exactly how many asteroids are detected varies. "The number of asteroids we detect per night with our telescope really depends on the weather or where we are in the lunar calendar," Christensen said.
It's not just asteroids that fly past Earth by a hair's breadth: a newly discovered comet will come so close to us in October 2024 that it can be seen with the naked eye. (tt)