Bring asteroids to life with NASA’s Target Asteroids! project

By Emily Lewis | May 13, 2014 12:56 pm

In the September print edition of Discover Magazine, the article “Secret Death of Asteroids” describes the creative ways that nature has for destroying asteroids – it’s not just through large collisions. Now citizen scientists can help astronomers learn more about asteroids with NASA’s Target Asteroids! project.

In 2016, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will take off for the asteroid, Bennu. The goal of the mission is to map the asteroid’s terrain and collect a sample of its surface material, which will be returned to earth and analyzed. Scientists have chosen Bennu as a target because it is a carbon-based asteroid, which means it contains the same material that was present when the solar system formed.  By analyzing the returned sample, scientists will gain new clues about these materials and, perhaps, how they influenced the start of life on earth. The video “Asteroids Fact vs. Fiction” below was produced by the OSIRIS-REx team and provides some background information on asteroids and the mission.

To help gather more data about Bennu and other similar asteroids, the Target Asteroids! citizen science project was created by a team at NASA and the University of Arizona. The project asks that amateur astronomers record the movement and brightness of asteroids that are close to earth, called near earth asteroids, and submit their observations to expert scientists who use them to extract more advanced data, including the asteroid’s size, shape, and material composition. Dolores Hill co-lead of the Target Asteroids! project describes that, by compiling all of the citizen scientist observations, the team “can turn what is just a point of light you can barely see into a whole world with physical character.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 5.16.05 PM

To contribute an observation, a participant must locate one of the near earth asteroids on the list using a telescope and then record three or more digital images during the night to track the asteroid’s movement. By using the stars in the images for reference, the position and path of the asteroid can be determined using astronomy software that Target Asteroids! provides. The participant must also determine the brightness of the asteroid in the software and create a report from the analysis. This report is then submitted to the Target Asteroids! team and, if the object is not very bright, to the Minor Planet Center as well. Dolores says the submission of the report to both places “allows not only our science team to use the data, but anyone else in the world.”

While the main goal of the project is to collect data for the science team, Dolores notes that Target Asteroids! also aims “to encourage serious amateur astronomers to observe asteroids and for new amateur astronomers to learn how to do it.” To reach this educational goal, the Target Asteroids! team provides a number of resources to interested citizen scientists who do not own a telescope or who live in light-polluted areas, one of which is an annual program in conjunction with the International Astronomical Search Collaboration (ISAC) where participants are sent images from world-class telescopes to analyze. They also encourage participants to collaborate with local astronomy clubs or to work with networks such as Sierra Stars to acquire observation time.

Artist’s picture of an asteroid belt via NASA.

Dolores describes, “There’s over 600,000 asteroids out there and over 10,000 near earth asteroids, so the thing that’s amazing is that we actually know very little about most of them.” By submitting these observations, participants can really make a difference in the understanding of these extra-terrestrial objects – whether it be uncovering the materials that fostered life on earth or discovering the “secret deaths” of asteroids in space.


“Asteroids Fact vs. Fiction” movie from the OSIRIS-REx YouTube Channel, 321Science

Target Asteroids! image:

Bottom image: Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA


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About Emily Lewis

Emily Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work investigated fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and examining the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH.


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