Lee County High School physics and astronomy teacher Dave Baltenberger says getting seniors involved with IASC (the International Asteroid Search Collaboration) has taught the students about research and that science can be fun. If they find a previously unknown asteroid that becomes numbered, the students will be allowed to name it. (March 10, 2013)
LEESBURG -- Late last month, an asteroid the size of a city block passed within 600,000 miles of Earth. When you couple that with the bus-sized asteroid that exploded over Russia last month, it makes one wonder if the planet is suddenly under attack from near-Earth objects whizzing around our small blue speck in the cosmos.
Relax, experts say. There is no sudden proliferation of asteroid assaults, it's just that more and more people are searching the heavens for them.
Three years ago Lee County High School physics and astronomy teacher Dave Baltenberger was surfing the Internet looking for ideas of how to get more of his students interested in astronomy. It was then he stumbled across the International Astronomical Search Collaboration.
IASC, or "Isaac," is an online educational outreach program for high schools and colleges in which students make original astronomical discoveries. Each day students receive telescopic images, and using the software Astrometrica, they accurately measure the time and position of asteroids moving in the background.
The measurements are recorded in a report sent to the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University.
Baltenberger was intrigued and fired off an email to IASC Director Patrick Miller of Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, asking if Lee County could join the program.
"I thought this was a great way to get kids in high school and college to be able to experience real research," Baltenberger said. "It's neat because it is something we normally wouldn't do in school."
During the five-week campaign period, each school receives three to five unique sets of images each week of the campaign. Students download each image set and search them for asteroids just hours after they have been taken along the celestial ecliptic by the Astronomical Research Institute.
Students use the software to track object movements and consult with IASC teachers who have participated in asteroid search campaigns. The teachers are available through the web site to answer questions by email and help with learning the software.
Last year, more than 5,000 students from more than 500 schools in more than 60 countries participated in IASC asteroid searches. Since it started in October 2006, 450 asteroids have been discovered, of which 29 have been numbered by the International Astronomical Union (Paris). Numbered asteroids are recorded in the world's official minor planet catalog and can be named by their student discoverers.
"I think they were looking for extra eyeballs on the sky and wondered how they could get people to do it for free," Baltenberger said. "It's exciting because this program has actually found undiscovered asteroids. We've not been able to find one yet. But the holy grail is to find a new one and to be able to name it."
Miller, a professor of mathematics, says more than 100 schools in the U.S are participating in the program. Lee County may be the only school in Georgia participating.
"So far the program has identified more than 500 near-Earth objects," Miller said. "Of those objects, 29 have either named or numbered by students. The beauty is the students can co-discover near-Earth objects on their own."
Baltenberger said when he began the program at Lee County, just 25 students were interested. The next year, more than 50 opted into his the twice-a-week, seniors-only astronomy class.
"The program has really helped spur an interest in astronomy here," Baltenberger said. "Just going through they research process it is helping kids discover that science and be fun."
Currently there are seven asteroids waiting to be named by their young discoverers -- six schools are in the United States and the seventh is in Poland.
For more information visit www.astronomerswithoutborders.org.