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
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.