By Thomas Guengerich
SOCORRO, N.M., Nov. 25, 2008 – An asteroid discovered at Tech in 2003 was recently officially recognized as “174801 Etscorn,” in honor of former New Mexico Tech professor Dr. Frank Etscorn.
Astrophysicist Dr. Bill Ryan first found the asteroid in 2003 using the 14-inch Celestron telescope at the Etscorn Campus Observatory (ECO) at New Mexico Tech.
“A few years back I was using ECO for a project and stumbled upon an asteroid that I was surprised to notice was unidentified,” he wrote. “Nowadays, with big surveys running, asteroid discoveries aren’t often made with small telescopes, but it does still happen.”
Ryan, who came to New Mexico Tech after Dr. Etscorn retired, said he thought naming the asteroid after him would be appropriate.
Etscorn was a psychology professor at New Mexico Tech in 1979 when he seized on a ground-breaking concept. His research led to the invention of the nicotine patch, which he patented and licensed. Also an avid amateur astronomer, Etscorn donated seed money to the campus observatory that allowed the fledgling facility to get started. The observatory was officially christened in April 1993.
Over the years, ECO has grown to include some of the best instruments available at an American university.
“This asteroid was discovered using the small campus observatory that was a beneficiary of Frank Etscorn's research,” Ryan said. “Etscorn Observatory is used for classes, outreach events, the Enchanted Skies Party and other public events.”
To see a graphic representation of the asteroid’s orbit, log on to ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi?sstr=174801;orb=1;cov=0;log=0#orb.
Etscorn Asteroid orbits beyond Mars and takes roughly 3.66 years to circle the sun. The asteroid’s exact size has not yet been determined, but Ryan estimates its diameter at 1 to 3 kilometers.
At the time of the discovery, Ryan was using the Celestron telescope to collect some supplementary observations for a previous NASA-funded research project on Vesta family main belt asteroids.
The primary facilities that Ryan and his collaborators were using for that project was the 1.8-meter Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona and the 1.0-meter at Cerro Tololo in Chile. To supplement those larger telescopes, Ryan used the Etscorn telescopes.
Ryan was taking photometric data on the Vesta family asteroid 1929 Kollaa when three other asteroids appeared in the frames. Two were previously known, but, surprisingly, the third wasn't. The Minor Planet Center (MPC) gave it the provisional designation of 2003 WZ165.
In the intervening years, Ryan took follow-up observations from Mt. Graham and Cerro Tololo. Etscorn Asteroid was also detected in the archives of the NEO survey projects Spacewatch, LINEAR, NEAT, and the Catalina Sky Survey. After Ryan submitted some astrometry using MRO in December 2007, the Minor Planet Center assessed that the orbit was well determined enough to assign a number the next spring, and hence opened it up to naming.
Etscorn Campus Observatory is primarily operated by students. The observatory has seven telescopes available for student use, including a 20-inch Dobsonian and a 14-inch Celestron.
New Mexico Tech is constructing a new $70 million facility, the Magdalena Ridge Observatory that includes a 2.4-meter optical telescope and that will eventually include a 10-unit interferometer. However, that installation is an hour from campus and students will share time with NASA, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Research Lab, and other universities. At Etscorn Observatory, New Mexico Tech students have easy access to a wide variety of exceptional instruments – and the capability of making stellar discoveries.
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