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UK Astronomers Watch the Skies for Threat from Space


British astronomers are providing a vital component to the world-wide effort of identifying and monitoring rogue asteroids and comets. From this month, the UK Astrometry and Photometry Programme (UKAPP) for Near-Earth Objects, based at Queens University, Belfast, will track Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and feed their crucial information into the international programme of protecting the Earth from any future impact by a comet or asteroid.

On average 30-40 NEOs are discovered each month - asteroids and comets that could one day collide with the Earth. Over 3000 NEOs have now been found, and a world-wide effort involving professional and amateur astronomers attempts to keep track of these objects. Now a team of astronomers at Queen’s University Belfast will be tracking these objects each week using large high-performance telescopes.

UKAPP is using the Faulkes Telescope North, a robotic telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui built primarily for educational use by the Faulkes Telescope Project. At the end of this year they will also start using the twin Faulkes Telescope South at Siding Spring, Australia. The telescopes’ mirror size of 2-m allows astronomers to see fainter NEOs than most other facilities regularly used for this task. Test observations took place in September, and the full programme begins in October. The work is supported by a grant from the British National Space Centre (BNSC) and the Particle Physics Research Council (PPARC).

Dr. Alan Fitzsimmons, the project leader, said “Previously we used UK-funded telescopes on La Palma, but for various reasons they could only track a couple of objects per month on average. The robotic nature of the Faulkes telescopes means that it is much easier for us to observe numerous NEOs than can be achieved by using conventional telescopes.” Once the images of the NEOs are taken, Dr Fitzsimmons and his colleagues transfer them to an astronomical computer network in Northern Ireland via the internet. The positions of the NEOs are then measured and communicated to the Minor Planer Center in Harvard in America; the world’s clearing house and repository for measurements of NEOs.

Although most of the time will be spent tracking NEOs, some of the time will also be spent studying their physical make-up. Dr Fitzsimmons said “This is not only scientifically interesting. If we are going to be hit by one of these things in the future, we need as much information as possible to allow us to plan any course of mitigation”.

An important aspect is that school classes and science centres around the country can also do this work. In a separate endeavour from UKAPP, the Faulkes Telescope Project assists school children to track NEOs using specially designed educational projects.

Dave Bowdley, Faulkes Telescope Educational Programmes Manager said, “This project provides a fantastic opportunity for schools to work alongside the professionals in an exciting area of research.”

Julia Maddock | alfa
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