Gaze into the Heavens

My Near Earth Asteroid Project

During my junior year of high school, I developed a scientific research project titled The Orbital Calculation and Spectrographic Classification of Select Near Earth Asteroids. Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) are a class of objects in our solar system whose orbits bring them within 0.3 Astronomical Units of the Earth’s orbit.  Over 10,000 NEAs have now been discovered, the great majority of them in the last decade as part of U.S. government-sponsored efforts to identify Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) that could impact Earth and cause widespread damage, destruction, and even extinctions. More recently, commercial interest has increased in developing technologies capable of mining NEAs for precious metals, rare earths, and water, the latter of which could potentially be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket propellant.  For my project, I selected several NEAs for study that appear to be promising candidates for future prospecting missions to determine their potential as targets for space mining operations.  The goal was to identify several NEAs that are rich in metals (M type or S‑type Asteroids) whose orbits relative to Earth made them favorable targets for visits by Earth-launched interceptors. This project tested the hypothesis that using equatorially mounted amateur-class refractor and reflector telescopes of up to 12 inches of aperture from moderately light polluted skies, an observer can successfully image select Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) with a CCD camera and use the resulting data to calculate their orbits. This project also tested the hypothesis that a LISA spectrograph from Shelyak Instruments, when utilized with these same telescopes, would yield data on NEAs sufficient to permit differentiation and classification of them based on their mineralogical compositions. Overall, the purpose of this experiment was to select several NEAs for study that appear to be promising candidates for future prospecting missions in space mining operations.

Following the selection of the NEA targets, telescopes outfitted with CCD cameras were used to capture at least three images of each of the selected NEAs.  By mapping the images against accurate sky charts and using Gauss’s method, I calculated an orbit for each of the selected NEA targets, and then I cross-referenced it with orbital data published on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar System Dynamics website. In addition, I used the LISA spectrograph to identify the NEAs using the Tholen Classification to determine whether a particular target NEA appeared likely to have a promising mineralogical composition.

Below is a video of one of the asteroids I tracked:

Me in front of my presentation display at the Middle Tennessee Science and Engineering Fair.  My project was called The Orbital Calculation and Spectrographic Classification of Near Earth Asteroids, and it won first prize in the Physics and Astronomy Category, first prize from the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society, and it was the Alternate Grand Prize Winner overall.