Near-Earth Asteroid Discovered via Crowdsourcing

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The ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) program has scored its first hit. Although SSA astronomers have detected asteroids before, this is the first time that a near-Earth object (NEO) has been spotted by the group of volunteers.

Although details are scant, asteroid 2011 SF108′s orbit takes it to a closest approach of 30 million kilometers (19 million miles, or roughly 100 times the average Earth-moon distance) from Earth — a distance considered “safe.”

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Asteroid 2011 SF108 may not be of immediate concern for life on Earth — although the ESA press release does point out that it’s “close enough to Earth to pose an impact threat” — this is a great example of how crowd-sourced projects can be used to boost our ability to search for NEOs.

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This particular asteroid was discovered by SSA-sponsored Teide Observatory Tenerife Asteroid Survey (TOTAS) using the 1-meter ESA Optical Ground Station telescope on Tenerife, Canary Islands (pictured top).

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During TOTAS observations, the telescope scans the sky automatically, looking for any errant chunks of space rock. When an asteroid candidate is identified, the data must be reviewed by a human before the discovery is made.

In this case, 20 volunteers were on-hand, via the Internet, to review the asteroid candidates.

“Images are distributed to the entire team for review, and any one of them could be the discoverer of a new asteroid,” says Detlef Koschny, Head of NEO activity for SSA. “This time, the luck of the draw fell to Rainer Kracht.”

“Eight of us reviewed images on the night of the discovery, and I was lucky to be the one who found 2011 SF108 as part of this team,” said Kracht, a retired school teacher who lives in Elmshorn, near Hamburg, Germany.

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This may not be the largest crowd-sourcing project, but it proves that the combination of powerful telescopes, smart astronomical software and a team of volunteers can make a huge difference when looking for NEOs. TOTAS is the first of many telescopes that the SSA program hopes to have incorporated in a much larger network of observatories. Professional and amateur astronomers will participate in the wider project, hoped to be finalized in 2012.

Should a large asteroid be on a collision-course with Earth, we’ll need all the advanced warning we can get — crowdsourcing projects like this may give us that luxury.

SLIDE SHOW: If we did spot an incoming asteroid, how could we deflect it?

Image: ESA’s Optical Ground Station (OGS) is located at the Observatorio del Teide on Tenerife, and is situated at an altitude of 2393 meters (ESA)

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