sci19011 — Announcement

The Asteroid Hunter

24 September 2019

López Martí, S. Kruk, M. Mahlke, B. Merín, E. Racero & D. Baines

Hubble Asteroid Hunter was a citizen science project to identify serendipitous observations of asteroids in Hubble Space Telescope (HST) images.

The HST data archive can hide unexpected treasures, such as traces of asteroids. These discoveries are highly valuable for scientists studying minor Solar System bodies. For example, identifying asteroids in the images and marking the positions of their trails allows for valuable updates in the IAU Minor Planet Center and improved characterisation of the objects. To make these discoveries within the Hubble data archive, researchers need to search through the telescope's vast wealth of data spanning nearly three decades.

A pipeline solution was therefore developed that uses the ephemerides from an input Solar System object to identify images from the European HST Archive that match in both time and position the expected location of that object in the sky. This means it is now possible to effectively and efficiently find new Hubble observations of asteroids. The pipeline solution was developed by the ESAC Science Data Centre (ESDC) at the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) and was initially implemented on the ESA Sky portal.

The predicted positions of these objects do have some uncertainties, as the ephemerides are not always known to great precision. This has offered volunteers a special opportunity to participate in the review of these images to mark the exact position of the asteroid’s trails.

The result was Hubble Asteroid Hunter, a citizen science project to identify asteroids in Hubble images. This initiative was developed by researchers and engineers at the European Science and Technology Centre (ESTEC), the Spanish Centro de Astrobiología (CAB, INTA-CSIC) and the ESDC, in collaboration with Zooniverse, the world’s largest and most popular citizen science platform. This project was launched in association with the 2019 International Asteroid Day on 20 June and soon attracted over 1800 volunteers that provided 300 000 classifications in one month.

In addition to marking the positions of known asteroids, the project also allowed for serendipitous discoveries of new asteroids. Participants also tagged various other known astronomical objects, such as gravitational lenses, galaxies, nebulae and quasar jets. Volunteers also discussed their findings and sought assistance from scientists and other participants via the project’s forum.

Given the success of the initiative, the project was soon extended by adding HST images from the ecliptic plane to search for unknown asteroids. By August 2019, nearly 11 000 images were classified and ready for subsequent analysis. This initiative is now closed and results are expected soon — stay tuned!


The Asteroid Hunter Team

About the Announcement



Asteroid in the Crab Nebula (M1)
Asteroid in the Crab Nebula (M1)

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