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Hunting for NEOs: Catalina Sky Survey February 19, 2009

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.
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On the night of Feb. 17, I visited the Catalina Sky Survey‘s 60-inch Near Earth Object search telescope on the summit of Mt. Lemmon, above Tucson, Arizona. On hand were astronomers Steve Larson and that evening’s observer, Alex Gibbs. Larson is the principal investigator and Gibbs one of the team members of the Catalina Sky Survey, the most productive searchers for Near Earth Objects today.

Richard Kowalksi shot the 60-inch dome on Mt. Lemmon. The ISS streaks across the sky at rear.

Richard Kowalksi shot the 60-inch dome on Mt. Lemmon. The ISS streaks across the sky at rear.

Their efforts depend on two telescopes, the 60-inch atop Mt. Lemmon (9,154 feet) and a nearby 68/76-cm Schmidt telescope, also equipped with CCD detectors, on Mt. Bigelow (8497 ft). . When I visited, it was snowing; observing was impossible, but the night’s beauty was still evident, and I did get a thorough tour of the bigger telescope for our Association of Space Explorers efforts on NEO impact decision-making. NASA funds the Catalina Sky Survey to the tune of under a million dollars per year; more robust funding will be needed if we are to search for smaller NEOs that may threaten Earth with destructive impacts. Congress has directed such a small-object survey (down to 140 meters in diameter), but because it did not fund NASA to carry it out, the space agency has not spent any money to pursue that goal.I discuss the impact process in my book Planetology and our current efforts to head off a future impact in my Aerospace America article (Oct. 2008).

While snow fell outside, the 60-inch CSS telescope still impressed. 2-17-09. (Tom Jones)

While snow fell outside, the 60-inch CSS telescope still impressed. 2-17-09. (Tom Jones)

Larson and company have created efficient software to aid their sky search and identify new NEOs. The team discovered 2008 TC3, the small asteroid fragment that was detected less than 24 hours before Earth impact last October.

Alex Gibbs (right) and Tom Jones at Catalina Sky Survey's 60-inch telescope control room. 2-17-09

Alex Gibbs (right) and Tom Jones at Catalina Sky Survey's 60-inch telescope control room. 2-17-09

Thank you, Steve, for a marvelous tour. I’ll come back when the skies are clear. Good luck!

Enjoy this time lapse of the Schmidt in operation, courtesy of Richard Kowalski. The rising Milky Way is stunning.

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