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Tech Astronomers Identify Rare Binary Asteroid

SOCORRO, N.M. January 14, 2015 – New Mexico Tech astronomers recently observed a rare binary asteroid and will publish their results soon.

Dr. Dan Klinglesmith and a group of students have been observing and characterizing asteroids for the last three years at the Etscorn Campus Observatory.  During this period they have published 29 papers and obtained rotational periods for over 100 asteroids. This observation represents the first time that the Tech group has identified a binary asteroid, Klinglesmith said.

The asteroid was first discovered by Dr. Brian Skiff at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in 1983, but had never been studied exhaustively.

Named (3841) Dicicco, the asteroid was listed in the September 2014 edition of the Minor Planet Bulletin as a potential target for observation.

Minor Planet Bulletin always publishes a list of which asteroids are in position to be observed now,” Klinglesmith said. “We went over the list and took a chance. Lo and behold, it had a short rotational period and we observed it for many nights.”

Klinglesmith and undergraduate physics students Austin Dehart and Jesse Hanowell started observing the asteroid on November 21.

“I took images and it had a nice 3.6 hour rotation when I started,” Klinglesmith said. “Then all of a sudden the data went to heck. I thought that it might be an indication of a binary asteroid … and it was.”

Colleagues in Italy and the Czech Republic also observed Dicicco and confirmed Klinglesmith’s findings.

This project is part of a three-year grant from NASA for identify the shapes of asteroids. The funding comes through the N.M. Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. Seven students at Tech have worked on the project since its inception. Collectively, they have published 29 papers, with each student publishing at least one single-author paper. Two participants have graduated: Angie Vargas and Ethan Risley. Janet Turk and Curtis Warren were on the project. Currently, Austin DeHart, Jessie Hannowell and Sebastian Hendrickx are working on the project.

“New Mexico Tech prides itself on getting undergraduates students involved in research,” Klinglesmith said. “This effort is showing the students the research process from the collecting of the data through to publishing the results in a peer reviewed journal. It looks great on their resumes.”

NASA’s interest in characterizing asteroids is for future exploration. Eventually, the agency is likely to fund expeditions to approach and land on asteroids.

“Whether we want to orbit and take images or land on one and take samples – or even put an astronaut on it – we need to pick a good one,” Klinglesmith said.

To calculate size and shapes, astronomers like Klinglesmith need several cycles of observations, which are usually about a year apart.

“In each pass, we look at different shapes and different light curves,” he said. “After many passes, we get a crude idea of its shape.”

 “Most people doing the lightcurve work are amateurs,” Klinglesmith said. “Professionals can’t afford time on large telescopes to look at a single object for eight hours. Amateurs with a 14- to 20-inch telescope and a good CCD camera can measure faint asteroids and their light curves.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech