Astronomers discover asteroid treasure trove in old Hubble Space Telescope data
Astronomers have revealed the trails of nearly 1,500 new asteroids hidden in data gathered by NASA's most venerable space telescope. In a new study, astronomers and a team of amateur scientists have worked together to comb through archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope. "One astronomer's trash can be another astronomer's treasure," study lead Sandor Kruk, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, said in a statement. The team used observations captured by Hubble's ACS and WFC3 cameras from between April 30, 2002, and March 14, 2021. Because the typical observation time for these instruments is 30 minutes, the team knew that moving asteroids would appear in the images as streaks.
"Due to the orbit and motion of Hubble itself, the streaks appear curved in the images, which makes it difficult to classify asteroid trails — or rather, it is difficult to tell a computer how to automatically detect them," Kruk said. For the project, 11,482 citizen science volunteers perused these thousands of images for streaks. This total was later whittled down by Kruk and fellow study authors astronomers Pablo García Martín from the Autonomous University of Madrid and Marcel Popescu from the Astronomical Institute of the Romanian Academy. About one-third of the confirmed trails were further identified as known asteroids listed in the Minor Planet Center's database of solar system objects. So far, the researchers do know that the identified asteroids "are systematically fainter and therefore probably smaller than typical asteroids detected from the ground, with a similar speed and distribution on the sky as the known asteroids in the so-called Main Belt," the statement reads.
The team aims to follow up on the new study by using the shape of the asteroid trails to try to determine how far away the space rocks are from Earth and derive information about their orbits. "The asteroids are remnants from the formation of our solar system, which means that we can learn more about the conditions when our planets were born," Kruk said. The EUCLID telescope, which will launch next year if all goes well, is a European observatory designed to investigate dark matter and dark energy in the universe.
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