PLANETARY SECURITYAstronomers Seek Your Help in Hunting for Asteroids

By Kylianne Chadwick

Published 30 May 2023

Anyone with an internet connection can become an asteroid hunter and join University of Arizona researchers as they work to discover asteroids hurtling through our solar system.

Anyone can become an asteroid hunter thanks to a new program launched by astronomers at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. As part of the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey, the scientists created an online portal that opens their mission – the discovery and identification of space rocks that regularly visit Earth’s neighborhood – to the general public.

While gazing up at the night sky with the naked eye, one might see stars, planets and the occasional airplane. What one usually won’t see, however, are asteroids and comets – lumps of rock tumbling through space – left over from the formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Because of their origin, these space objects might hold clues about the formation of the sun and planets, scientists believe.

Through the new portal, scientists from the Catalina Sky Survey will share potential asteroid and comet detections from their ground-based telescopes with anyone with an internet connection. Even amateurs can help scientists find unknown objects in the solar system as they click through and pore over high-resolution, telescope snapshots of the sky that scientists haven’t been able to look at.

I thought it would be great if people could do what we do every night,” said Carson Fuls, a science engineering specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey who heads the project. “We see this website as throwing open the doors: Do you want to look for asteroids, too? If so, come on in.”

To begin asteroid hunting, participants must create an account on Zooniverse, an online platform for people-powered research. Through the website, volunteers without any specialized training or expertise assist professional researchers from various fields. In the case of the public asteroid detection portal, a basic tutorial will have participants picking out moving asteroids from pictures in no time. 

Participants look at sets of images of the night sky taken by one of the Catalina Sky Survey telescopes. Each image set contains four exposures taken six or seven minutes apart. The pictures are noteworthy because software spotted a moving speck of light from one image to the next, which may or may not represent the light reflected from a faraway comet or asteroid.