Reaching for the asteroids - East Valley Tribune: News

Reaching for the asteroids

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Posted: Friday, October 10, 2003 11:52 pm | Updated: 2:12 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Three Fountain Hills amateur astronomers are poised to see a meteoric boost to their fledgling scientific endeavors.

Their role in the recent documentation of the closest approach to Earth by any known asteroid could accelerate their dreams for Minor Planet Research Inc.

The small nonprofit firm headed by Fountain Hills residents James Ashley and Paul Johnson is trying to establish itself in the branch of astronomy that searches for and studies NEOs — Near Earth Objects — as well as nationally market an interactive educational program to teach schoolchildren about comets, meteors and asteroids.

It was while testing the equipment and methods they're using for the projects that assistant Robert Cash, also a Fountain Hills resident, last month discovered what is now dubbed SQ222.

Since then it has been confirmed that the asteroid came within 54,600 miles of Earth — about a fifth of the distance to the moon — more than 10,000 miles closer than the previous closest asteroid, which whizzed by in 1994.

The images the three use are telescopic snapshots of various spots in outer space relayed to them by computer from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

The images are examined with computer software tailored to the needs of Minor Planet Research's experimental Asteroid Discovery Station by programmer Robert Denny, a Mesa resident.

It helps find and track the paths of objects moving through space.

It worked well enough for Cash to spot SQ222, “about the size of an SUV,’’ Ashley said.

The finding was communicated back to the Lowell Observatory, where the asteroid's orbital path was calculated and the data sent to the Minor Planet Center, a Smithsonian Institution program that serves as a clearing house for Near Earth Object research.

When the center gathered data from additional observations by other space object trackers, SQ222 was validated as a record-breaker.

Had its orbit sent it on course with Earth, it likely would have disintegrated in the atmosphere, Ashley said.

“At most it would have produced a shower of small meteoric stones,’’ he said.

But the discovery is significant as another step toward the goal of identifying and tracking objects hurtling throughout the solar system, Johnson said.

It's a “statistical certainty’’ that eventually a space object with enough mass to do immense damage will move into a collision course with Earth, Ashley said.

Scientists are trying to get as complete a picture as possible of those objects and their orbital paths, so any potential disastrous collision can be predicted.

“Today we have the technology to nudge them out of their orbits,’’ and away from Earth, Ashley said.

Johnson and Ashley say they're hoping their contribution puts Minor Planet Research on a fast track.

It is already set to debut its teaching program early next year in the West Valley at the Challenger Learning Center, which specializes in space science education. The plan is to take the program to educational institutions across the country, Johnson said.

He and Ashley are also working on a strategy to set up a worldwide network of observation stations designed to intensify the search for asteroids, comets and the like.

SQ222's discovery may give them some clout in trying to sell their ideas to the scientific community and to raise research funding, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, they plan to keep their day jobs. Johnson, who has degrees in finance and business management as well as astrophysics, is a North American representative for a major European industrial products manufacturer.

Ashley, a hydrogeologist, is an environmental consultant specializing in soil and groundwater inspection.

But the two say they are looking to the stars for their future pursuits.

“Once you get bit by this astronomy bug, it becomes a part of your life and you can't let it go,’’ Ashley said.

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