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Asteroid Discovery

* Historical Discovery Methods

Asteroid discovery methods have drastically improved over the past two centuries.

In the last years of the 18th century, Baron Franz Xaver von Zach organized a group of 24 astronomers to search the sky for the "missing planet" predicted at about 2.8 AU from the Sun by the Titius-Bode law, partly as a consequence of the discovery, by Sir William Herschel in 1781, of the planet Uranus at the distance "predicted" by the law. This task required that hand-drawn sky charts be prepared for all stars in the zodiacal band down to an agreed-upon limit of faintness. On subsequent nights, the sky would be charted again and any moving object would, hopefully, be spotted. The expected motion of the missing planet was about 30 seconds of arc per hour, readily discernable by observers.

Asteroid Discovery

Ironically, the first asteroid, 1 Ceres, was not discovered by a member of the group, but rather by accident in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi director, at the time, of the observatory of Palermo, in Sicily. He discovered a new star-like object in Taurus and followed the displacement of this object during several nights. His colleague, Carl Friedrich Gauss, used these observations to determine the exact distance from this unknown object to the Earth. Gauss' calculations placed the object between the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Three other asteroids (2 Pallas, 3 Juno, and 4 Vesta) were discovered over the next few years, with Vesta found in 1807. After eight more years of fruitless searches, most astronomers assumed that there were no more and abandoned any further searches.

However, Karl Ludwig Hencke persisted, and began searching for more asteroids in 1830. Fifteen years later, he found 5 Astraea, the first new asteroid in 38 years. He also found 6 Hebe less than two years later. After this, other astronomers joined in the search and at least one new asteroid was discovered every year after that (except the wartime year 1945). Notable asteroid hunters of this early era were J. R. Hind, Annibale de Gasparis, Robert Luther, H. M. S. Goldschmidt, Jean Chacornac, James Ferguson, Norman Robert Pogson, E. W. Tempel, J. C. Watson, C. H. F. Peters, A. Borrelly, J. Palisa, Paul Henry and Prosper Henry and Auguste Charlois.

In 1891, however, Max Wolf pioneered the use of astrophotography to detect asteroids, which appeared as short streaks on long-exposure photographic plates. This drastically increased the rate of detection compared with previous visual methods: Wolf alone discovered 248 asteroids, beginning with 323 Brucia, whereas only slightly more than 300 had been discovered up to that point. Still, a century later, only a few thousand asteroids were identified, numbered and named. It was known that there were many more, but most astronomers did not bother with them, calling them "vermin of the skies".

* Modern Discovery Methods

Until 1998, asteroids were discovered by a four-step process. First, a region of the sky was photographed by a wide-field telescope. Pairs of photographs were taken, typically one hour apart. Multiple pairs could be taken over a series of days. Second, the two films of the same region were viewed under a stereoscope. Any body in orbit around the Sun would move slightly between the pair of films. Under the stereoscope, the image of the body would appear to float slightly above the background of stars. Third, once a moving body was identified, its location would be measured precisely using a digitizing microscope. The location would be measured relative to known star locations .These first three steps do not constitute asteroid discovery: the observer has only found an apparition, which gets a provisional designation, made up of the year of discovery, a code of two letters representing the week of discovery, and of a number so more than the one discovered one took place in this week (example: 1998 FJ74).

The final step of discovery is to send the locations and time of observations to Brian Marsden of the Minor Planet Center. Dr. Marsden has computer programs that compute whether an apparition ties together previous apparitions into a single orbit. If so, the object gets a number. The observer of the first apparition with a calculated orbit is declared the discoverer, and he gets the honour of naming the asteroid (subject to the approval of the International Astronomical Union) once it is numbered.

* Latest Technology: Detecting Hazardous Asteroids

There is increasing interest in identifying asteroids whose orbits cross Earth's orbit, and that could, given enough time, collide with Earth (see Earth-crosser asteroids). The three most important groups of near-Earth asteroids are the Apollos, Amors, and the Atens. Various asteroid deflection strategies have been proposed. The near-Earth asteroid 433 Eros had been discovered as long ago as 1898, and the 1930s brought a flurry of similar objects. In order of discovery, these were: 1221 Amor, 1862 Apollo, 2101 Adonis, and finally 69230 Hermes, which approached within 0.005 AU of the Earth in 1937. Astronomers began to realize the possibilities of Earth impact.

Two events in later decades increased the level of alarm: the increasing acceptance of Walter Alvarez' theory of dinosaur extinction being due to an impact event, and the 1994 observation of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter. The U.S. military also declassified the information that its military satellites, built to detect nuclear explosions, had detected hundreds of upper-atmosphere impacts by objects ranging from one to 10 meters across.

All of these considerations helped spur the launch of highly efficient automated systems that consist of Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) cameras and computers directly connected to telescopes. Since 1998, a large majority of the asteroids have been discovered by such automated systems. A list of teams using such automated systems includes: The Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) team

The Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) team
Space watch
The Lowell Observatory Near-Earth-Object Search (LONEOS) team
The Catalina Sky Survey (CSS)
The Campo Imperatore Near-Earth Objects Survey (CINEOS) team
The Japanese Space guard Association
The Asiago-DLR Asteroid Survey (ADAS)

The LINEAR system alone has discovered 50,484 asteroids as of May 24, 2005 Between all of the automated systems, 3353 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered including over 600 more than 1 km in diameter.