Campus: CSU, Los Angeles -- April 17, 2001


LACC Students In Cal State L.A.-Led Consortium Help To Discover New Comet

Three students working as a part of the Cal State L.A.-led Consortium for Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) found that recently-discovered asteroid is in fact a new comet!

CURE is a Los Angeles-based collaboration of Cal State L.A., Los Angeles City College (LACC), Los Angeles Southwest College, East Los Angeles College, Pasadena City College, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Since 1999, it has been funded as the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) Astronomy site led by professors David Gregorich and Milan Mijic of Cal State L.A.'s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Stephen D. Gillam at the JPL Table Mountain Observatory. The associate program director at Los Angeles City College is LACC faculty and Cal State L.A. alumnus Dean Arvidson (M.S. in Physics, 1992), who recruited and trained the three LACC students, Adrian Esqueda, his brother Dario Esqueda and Tae Heon Ha, for their project. Students for Summer 2001 program are currently recruited at all colleges.

The three students work at the JPL Table Mountain Observatory under the direction of asteroid specialist Michael Hicks. The purpose of their project is tracking of near Earth asteroids, large boulders that orbit the Sun in orbits close to the orbit of Earth.

On the morning of February 4, 2001, the three students attempted to locate mysterious object labeled 2001 CV_8, which was discovered just three nights before by the powerful LINEAR telescope operating from New Mexico. On these images the object looked literally starlike, more than 100,000 times fainter than the faintest stars that can be seen with the naked eye. The object was distinguished only by its small displacement with respect to background stars between the two different exposures.

By that time, Esqueda, Esqueda and Ha had worked for almost a month on the asteroid tracking project, and had good command of the computer-controlled O.6 meter telescope at the Table Mountain Observatory. With remote guidance from Hicks who followed their work on his computer screen in Pasadena, the trio located and imaged the faint object with the electronic camera. The new camera image surprised Hicks, who realized that 2001 CV_8 did not appear starlike but diffuse, with a faint fan-shaped tail pointing toward the West-exactly what a distant comet would look like. The precise determination of the comet's position added to data from other observers around the world and allowed the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to determine that the yet unnamed comet orbits the Sun every 7.7 years on a very elongated orbit that brings it closer than Mars, but farther than Jupiter.

It is very unusual for an object on such trajectory to be a volatile comet rather than dead rock asteroid. Most likely this comet was once a distant member of a solar system that was, in the recent past, deflected by Jupiter to a closer and tighter orbit. It is believed that such objects bring within our sight the information about the composition of the primordial solar nebula from which planets including Earth are formed. Further studies of 2001 CV_8 will continue.

For more information, contact professor Milan Mijic, Cal State L.A.'s Department of Physics and Astronomy, at (323) 343-2119.


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