Maui telescope discovers 19 asteroids in one night

Photo courtesy University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy
Photo courtesy University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy

MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - A telescope on top of Haleakala, Maui, made a record on the starry night of Jan. 29, when it discovered 19 asteroids close to Earth.

Asteroids can be detected by telescopes when they move in front of background stars because they block out part of the light coming from those stars.

The Haleakala telescope collected these changes of light on that January night and sent the data to software engineer Larry Denneau at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, where he and others processed the information and came up with 30 new possible asteroids close to Earth.

"This record number of discoveries shows that (the PS1 telescope) is the world's strongest telescope for this kind of study," said Nick Kaiser, head of the project. "NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's support of this project illustrates how seriously they are taking the threat from near-Earth asteroids."

The discovery process didn't end after Denneau went through the telescope's data. The new possible asteroids had to be re-observed several times in a 12 to 72 hour timeframe to get a picture of what their orbits might be like. If they didn't do this, the space rocks would likely move too far away to be found again.

Usually, Hawaii astronomers can contact mainland observatories to help them confirm their discoveries, but "widespread snowstorms there closed down many of them," said astronomer Richard Wainscoat from the university's Institute of Astronomy. "We had to scramble to confirm many of the discoveries ourselves."

For Wainscoat, astronomer David Tholen and graduate student Marco Micheli, the next three nights were spent on Mauna Kea searching to confirm the asteroids that had been discovered on Maui.

They were only able to confirm the existence of 12 of them, but telescopes elsewhere in the world were able to confirm the other seven.

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