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Watch the Skies

Spacewatch is a 24-year-old University of Arizona astronomy program which monitors small bodies in our solar system, such as asteroids, to look for potential targets for interplanetary missions and, not incidentally, to watch for objects which might pose a hazard to the Earth. The Spacewatch telescopes keep a constant vigil, taking multi-minute exposure images of the night sky. Problem is, computer software actually doesn't work well to evaluate these images to find potential dangers. The human eye does a far better job.

Enter the Fast Moving Object, or FMO, Project. Announced last October, FMO relies on volunteer amateur astronomers and space-buffs to keep an eye out for asteroids which may be on a collision-course with Earth. Last week, for the first time, a volunteer for the program found something -- a 60-to-120-foot diameter asteroid which came within about 1.2 million miles of the Earth on Thursday, the astronomical equivalent of missing the Earth by a hair's breadth. Although the asteroid would have caused no damage had it actually struck, the discovery was a proof-of-concept that using a multitude of volunteers to watch for asteroids could work.

All you need to be a part of the FMO Project are good eyes, interest, and a willingness to watch computer images for signs of asteroid motion. Knowledge about astronomy is helpful, but not required. Unlike some other collaborative science efforts, this one can't be done by letting your computer do all the work. This one requires a bit more effort, but the payoff could be enormous -- the more people get involved, the better the chances of spotting something before it's too late.

The big drawback of the current Spacewatch system is that it only has two telescopes scanning the heavens. Right now, that's what's available. But on the horizon may be something a bit more radical...

Modern amateur telescopes, although still made using familiar laws of optics, have increasing computer sophistication. Right now, you can buy for around $300 a low-end amateur telescope able to find objects in the sky once it is told the current time and location; spend more money, and you can get one which has a built-in GPS system so that you don't have to tell it. Furthermore, many amateur scopes, particular the mid- to high-end ones, are made to work with CCD camera, so that you don't actually look through the telescope, you watch through a monitor, or even on your computer.

We're not far from the day when we could connect a huge number of amateur efforts into an effective planetary protection system, by collecting the output from amateur scopes over the internet, and using SETI@Home-style distributed computing to grind through the data looking for signs of previously-uncatalogued asteroids. On the input side, you'd have telescopes able to keep track of precisely where in the sky they're pointing, and you could even have networked telescopes running nightly observation routines when not otherwise in use, so as to get maximum coverage; on the analysis side, you'd have a BOINC-based grid of personal computers analyzing the images, comparing the results with known data.

This would clearly need the cooperation of a lot of people -- are there even enough serious amateur scopes in use to make this possible? -- and (based on the report about FOM) would require a new generation of image-processing software to be able to detect the faint traces of distant asteroids. Still, it seems like an idea which could become reality, and relatively soon. I think SpaceWatch@Home has a good ring to it...

Comments (1)


There are a *huge* number of amateur astronomers out there. I'm sure something cool would be viable now or in the near future.

The only thing keeping me from buying my own 10" S-C right now is, of course, the money :-)

Good, relatively inexpensive optics in small scopes combined with the CCD and CMOS digital cameras of todays quality have created sort of a renaissance in amateur astronomy and astrophotography.


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