Asteroids: Take a Number

Italian monk, mathematician, and astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi (1746-1826) discovered an unexpected 8th magnitude object in Taurus near Mars and the Pleiades at around 8:00 p.m. on January 1, 1801 at his observatory in Palermo, Sicily. Thinking it a comet, he recorded the position of the object over several nights, until illness forced him to quit on February 11, just a few days after the object passed fairly close to Mars. By early May, the object was too close to the Sun in the western sky to observe, and Piazzi despaired of ever recovering the object. The now-famous 24-year-old German mathematician Carl Gauss (1777-1855) came to the rescue. Gauss used Piazzi’s positions to determine an orbit for Ceres (so named by Piazzi) and predicted from the scant data its future positions when it would once again be visible in the night sky. Ceres was recovered only a half-degree away from its predicted position by Hungarian astronomer Franz Xaver von Zach (1754-1832) on December 7, close to Denebola and not far from a close conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, and then confirmed after a long stretch of cloudy weather on December 31, 1801. The German amateur astronomer Heinrich Olbers (1758-1840) found Ceres at Bremen two days later on January 2, 1802. Olbers (of Olbers’ Paradox fame) discovered the second asteroid, Pallas, on March 28, 1802. Many, many more asteroids have been discovered since then. They are sequentially numbered, originally in order of their discovery date, but nowadays in order of their receiving a precise orbit determination.

Fast forward.

The names of asteroids 998 through 1002, discovered between August 6-15, 1923, have special significance.

998 Bodea – named in honor of German astronomer Johann Elert Bode (1747-1826), whose empirical relationship of the distances of the planets (Titius-Bode Law) indicated that there should be a planet between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, touching off a massive search led by von Zach for a new planet.

999 Zachia – named in honor of Franz Xaver von Zach, who published Piazzi’s observations and recovered Ceres after Gauss’ predicted positions.

1000 Piazzia – named in honor of Giuseppe Piazzi, who discovered the first asteroid, 1 Ceres.

1001 Gaussia – named in honor of Carl Friedrich Gauss, who predicted the position of Ceres so it could be recovered.

1002 Olbersia – named in honor of Heinrich Olbers who was the second person to recover Ceres and the discoverer of the second asteroid, 2 Pallas (and 4 Vesta, by the way).

Fortunately, German astronomer Johann Daniel Titius (1729-1796) finally did get an asteroid named after him as well: 1998 Titius, discovered on February 24, 1938.

As of August 19, 2019, 796,422 minor planets (asteroids, trans-Neptunian objects, etc., but not including comets) have been discovered, but only 541,128 have orbits that are well-enough determined that they have been given a minor planet number. When a minor planet is first discovered, it is given a provisional designation based on the date of discovery. For example, 2019 PE3 was discovered during the first half of August 2019. After enough high-quality astrometric data has been collected to determine an accurate orbit, the minor planet is assigned a number. For example, minor planet 1996 TB1 was discovered by IOTA member George Viscome on October 5, 1996. It received a number, 35283, in 2000, and it received a name, Bradtimerson, earlier this year (2019). George submitted the name to the IAU after Brad Timerson, mentor and inspiration to many of the current crop of asteroid occultation observers, passed away on October 17, 2018. So we now have 35283 Bradtimerson.

The counts in the paragraph above show us that 67.9% of the minor planets that have been discovered have been assigned a number. Of these, only 21,922 (4.1%) have received a name.

Many asteroids have been given interesting or unusual names. Excluding the many fine individuals (real, not fictional) who have an asteroid named after them, here are a few of my favorites. There are a few here that are actually named after a person, but the minor planet name has a meaning beyond just the person’s name.

Remember, these are real places that will be visited someday. Oh, to be so lucky!

Lots of asteroids are awaiting names. Can you come up with some interesting, entertaining, or poetic ones? Give it a try, check this list or do a search here to make sure it is new, and then post a comment here and I’ll probably include your ideas in this article, giving you credit, of course. Be creative!

To get you in the spirit, here are a few names I’ve come up with:

  • Botanica
  • Distantia
  • Eternium
  • Gandalf
  • Luminaria
  • Morethanamote
  • Portentia
  • Symphonica

Have fun!

Retrograde Asteroids and TNOs

Of the 793,918 asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) currently catalogued, only 98 are in retrograde orbits around the Sun. That’s just 0.01%.

By “retrograde” we mean that the object orbits the Sun in the opposite sense of all the major planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. From a vantage point above the north pole of the Earth, all of the major planets orbit in a counterclockwise direction around the Sun.

Source: https://community.dur.ac.uk/john.lucey/users/inner.html

But a retrograde object would be seen to orbit in a clockwise direction around the Sun, as is shown in the animation below for Jupiter retrograde co-orbital asteroid 514107 (2015 BZ509), with respect to Jupiter and its two “clouds” of trojan asteroids.

Source: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/asteroid-jupiters-orbit-goes-its-own-way

Of these 98 retrograde objects, only 14 have orbits well-enough determined to have received a minor planet number, and only one has yet received an official name (20461 Dioretsa).

Semimajor Axis (a) between…Number of Retrograde Minor Planets
Mars – Jupiter3
Jupiter – Saturn*20
Saturn – Uranus*15
Uranus – Neptune*20
TNOs40

*asteroids between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune are often referred to as centaurs

At least some of these objects may be captured interstellar objects.

Let’s now take a look at some of these 98 retrograde objects in greater detail.

20461 Dioretsa
The first retrograde asteroid to be discovered was 20461 Dioretsa, in 1999. The only named retrograde asteroid to date, Dioretsa is an anadrome of the word “asteroid”. It is a centaur in a highly eccentric orbit (0.90), ranging between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter out to beyond the orbit of Neptune. Objects in cometlike orbits that show no evidence of cometary activity are often referred to as damocloids. Dioretsa is both a centaur and a damocloid. Its orbital inclination (relative to the ecliptic) is 160°, which is a 20° tilt from an anti-ecliptic orbit. It takes nearly 117 years to orbit the Sun once. It is a dark object with a reflectivity only around 3% and is estimated to be about 9 miles across.

2010 EQ169
This retrograde asteroid holds the distinction (at least temporarily) of being the most highly-inclined main-belt asteroid (91.6°), relative to the ecliptic plane. It is also the retrograde asteroid with the smallest semimajor axis (2.05 AU) and lowest orbital eccentricity (0.10). Unfortunately, it was discovered after the fact by analyzing past data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope, and has not been seen since. We have only a three-day arc of 17 astrometric observations of 2010 EQ169 between March 7-9, 2010 from which to determine its orbit. Nominally, 2010 EQ169 orbits the Sun at nearly a right angle to the ecliptic plane once every 2.9 years, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. However, our knowledge of its orbit is extremely uncertain, as shown below, and it has been lost. Our only hope will be to back-calculate the positions of future asteroids discovered to these dates to see if it matches the WISE positions.

ElementValue1σ Uncertainty
Inclination (i)91.606°18.177°
Semimajor Axis (a)2.0518 AU2.2176
Orbital Eccentricity (e)0.101530.90213
Orbital Period (P)2.94y4.765

2013 BL76
This retrograde TNO has the largest known semi-major axis of any of the retrograde non-cometary objects: 966.4274 ± 2.2149 AU. In a highly eccentric cometlike orbit (e = 0.99135), its perihelion is in the realm of the centaurs between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn (8.35 AU), and its aphelion is way out around 1,924 AU. It takes about 30,000 years to orbit the Sun. Its orbit is inclined 98.6° with respect to the ecliptic.

2013 LA2
This retrograde centaur is in an orbit closest to the ecliptic plane (i = 175.2°), tilted 4.8° with respect to the ecliptic. It orbits the Sun about once every 21 years between the orbits of Mars and Uranus.

2017 UX51
The distinction for this retrograde TNO is that it has the highest orbital eccentricity of any non-cometary solar system object (e = 0.9967). Or is it an old inactive comet? 2017 UX51 orbits the Sun every 7,419 ± 2,883 years as close in as between the orbits of Earth and Mars (perihelion q = 1.24 AU)—classifying it as an Amor object—out to far beyond the orbit of Neptune (aphelion Q = 759.54 ± 196.77 AU). Its orbital inclination is 108.2°.

343158 (2009 HC82)
An Apollo asteroid, 343158 is the only known retrograde near-Earth asteroid (NEA), with an orbital inclination of 154.4°. It orbits the Sun every 4.0 years, between 0.49 AU (almost as close in as the aphelion of Mercury) out to 4.57 AU (between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter).

References
Conover, E., 2017. Science News, 191, 9, 5.

JPL Small-Body Database Browser, https://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi, retrieved 31 March 2019.

Kankiewicz, P., Włodarczyk, I., 2018. Planetary and Space Science, 154, 72-76.

Minor Planet Center, https://minorplanetcenter.net/iau/MPCORB.html, retrieved 28 March 2019.

Namouni F., Morais M. H. M., 2018. MNRAS, 477, L117.

Wiegert, P., Connors, M., Veillet, C., 2017. Nature, 543, 687–689.

Turnkey System for Occultations

Finally, a turnkey system is available for recording stellar occultations by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs)! All you need besides the kit is a telescope and a PC. A big thank you to Ted Blank and IOTA for putting this together!

Occultation Recording Kit

  • Highly sensitive RunCam Night Eagle Astro Edition video camera
  • 0.5x focal reducer & adapters to attach camera to 1¼-inch eyepiece holder
  • IOTA VTI (Video Time Inserter) V3
  • StarTech SVID2USB23 USB video capture device
  • Instruction manual
  • Cost: $518

http://occultations.org/observing/recommended-equipment/iota-vti/

We need more observers in the Midwest (everywhere, really) to give us more chords across the asteroids and TNOs, thus increasing the scientific value of the observations. Right now, we are desperately in need of observers in Iowa (where I lived for many years and will always be home to me), and we have precious few active observers in Wisconsin (yours truly), Minnesota (Steve Messner), and Illinois (Bob Dunford, Aart Olsen, Randy Trank).

If you have an interest in pursuing this interesting and rewarding speciality that gives you the opportunity to make a valuable scientific contribution, feel free to post a comment here and I’ll be happy to help!

Direct Imaging of Exoplanets Through Occultations

Planetary orbits are randomly oriented throughout our galaxy. The probability that an exoplanet’s orbit will be fortuitously aligned to allow that exoplanet to transit across the face of its parent star depends upon the radius of the star, the radius of the planet, and the distance of the planet from the star. In general, planets orbiting close-in are more likely to be seen transiting their star then planets orbiting further out.

The equation for the probability of observing a exoplanet transit event is

p_{tra} = \left (\frac{R_{\bigstar}+R_{p}}{a} \right )\left (\frac{1}{1-e^{2}} \right )

where ptra is the transit probability, R* is the radius of the star, Rp is the radius of the planet, a is the semi-major axis of the planetary orbit, and e is the eccentricity of the planetary orbit 

Utilizing the data in the NASA Exoplanet Archive for the 1,463 confirmed exoplanets where the above data is available (and assuming e = 0 when eccentricity is unavailable), we find that the median exoplanet transit probability is 0.0542. This means that, on average, 1 out of every 18 planetary systems will be favorably aligned to allow us to observe transits. However, keep in mind that our present sample of exoplanets is heavily biased towards large exoplanets orbiting close to their parent star. Considering a hypothetical sample of Earth-sized planets orbiting 1 AU from a Sun-sized star, the transit probability drops to 0.00469, which means that we would be able to detect only about 1 out of every 213 Earth-Sun analogs using the transit method.

How might we detect some of the other 99.5%? My admired colleague in England, Abdul Ahad, has written a paper about his intriguing idea: “Detecting Habitable Exoplanets During Asteroidal Occultations”. Abdul’s idea in a nutshell is to image the immediate environment around nearby stars while they are being occulted by asteroids or trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) in order to detect planets orbiting around them. While there are many challenges (infrequency of observable events, narrow shadow path on the Earth’s surface, necessarily short exposure times, and extremely faint planetary magnitudes), I believe that his idea has merit and will one day soon be used to discover and characterize exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.

Ahad notes that the apparent visual magnitude of any given exoplanet will be directly proportional to the apparent visual magnitude of its parent star, since exoplanets shine by reflected light. Not only that, Earth-sized and Earth-like planets orbiting in the habitable zone of any star would shine by reflected light of the same intrinsic brightness, regardless of the brightness of the parent star. He also notes that the nearer the star is to us, the greater will be a given exoplanet’s angular distance from the occulted star. Thus, given both of these considerations (bright parent star + nearby parent star = increased likelihood of detection), nearby bright stars such as Alpha Centauri A & B, Sirius A, Procyon A, Altair, Vega, and Fomalhaut offer the best chance of exoplanet detection using this technique.

Since an exoplanet will be easiest to detect when it is at its greatest angular distance from its parent star, we will be seeing only about 50% of its total reflected light. An Earth analog orbiting Alpha Centauri A would thus shine at visual magnitude +23.7 at 0.94″ angular distance, and for Alpha Centauri B the values would be +24.9 and 0.55″.

Other considerations include the advantage of an extremely faint occulting solar system object (making it easier to detect faint exoplanets during the occultation event), and the signal boost offered by observing in the infrared, since exoplanets will be brightest at these wavelengths.

A distant (and therefore slow-moving) TNO would be ideal, but the angular size of the TNO needs to be larger than the angular size of the occulted star. However, slow-moving objects mean that occultation events will be rare.

The best chance of making this a usable technique for exoplanet discovery would be a space-based observatory that could be positioned at the center of the predicted shadow and would be able to move along with the shadow to increase exposure times (Ahad, personal communication). It would be an interesting challenge in orbital mechanics to design the optimal base orbit for such a spacecraft. The spacecraft orbit would be adjusted to match the position and velocity of the occultation shadow for each event using an ion drive or some other electric propulsion system.

One final thought on the imaging necessary to detect exoplanets using this technique. With a traditional CCD you would need to begin and end the exoplanet imaging exposure(s) only while the parent star is being occulted. This would not be easy to do, and would require two telescopes – one for the occultation event detection and one for the exoplanet imaging. A better approach would be to use a Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode (APD). Here’s a description of the device captured in 2016 on the MIT Lincoln Labs Advanced Imager Technology website:

A Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode (APD), on the other hand, can be used to build an all-digital pixel in which the arrival of each photon triggers a discrete electrical pulse. The photons are counted digitally within the pixel circuit, and the readout process is therefore noise-free. At low light levels, there is still noise in the image because photons arrive at random times so that the number of photon detection events during an exposure time has statistical variation. This noise is known as shot noise. One advantage of a pixel that can digitally count photons is that if shot noise is the only noise source, the image quality will be the best allowed by the laws of physics. Another advantage of an array of photon counting pixels is that, because of its noiseless readout, there is no penalty associated with reading the imager out frequently. If one reads out a thousand 1-ms exposures of a static scene and digitally adds them, one gets the same image quality as a single 1-s exposure. This would not be the case with a conventional imager that adds noise each time it is read out.

References
Ahad, A., “Detecting Habitable Exoplanets During Asteroidal Occultations”, International Journal of Scientific and Innovative Mathematical Research, Vol. 6(9), 25-30 (2018).
MIT Lincoln Labs, Advanced Imager Technology, https://www.ll.mit.edu/mission/electronics/ait/single-photon-sensitive-imagers/passive-photon-counting.html. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
NASA Exoplanet Archive https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu.
Winn, J.N., “Exoplanet Transits and Occultations,” in Exoplanets, ed. Seager, S., University of Arizona Press, Tucson (2011).

Obsolete But Still Relevant

Under the direction of Friedrich Argelander (1799-1875), astronomers at the Bonn Observatory spent seven years (1852 to 1859) measuring the positions and magnitudes of roughly 324,000 stars, one star at a time.  This phenomenal work resulted in the Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) catalog and atlas, which included stars down to approximately magnitude 9.5 and is a tribute to the foresight of Argelander and the diligence of his small staff.  The Bonner Durchmusterung was the last star catalog to be produced without the benefit of photography, and it is certainly the most comprehensive of the pre-photographic atlases.

Back in 2007, Alan MacRobert stated (Sky & Telescope, July 2007, p. 59), “Someday machines will measure the brightness of every star in the sky to some amazingly deep magnitude many times a night, and blind software will compile and analyze light curves automatically.”  No doubt, he is correct, but he does add that this has not happened yet, despite years of pregnant expectations.

But we are getting closer to that day, with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) scheduled to come online in 2022 and many other similar survey instruments in the pipeline or already operational.  That is one reason as an amateur astronomer with limited resources (including time) I focus on observing the occultation of stars by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects.  It is one of the few areas where an amateur observational astronomer can provide location-dependent observations.  You are either in the shadow path or you are not.  Though truth be told I would rather be studying exoplanets, we can only do what we have the resources to do—regardless of talent or potential.

History is full of examples of skills and techniques made obsolete almost overnight by new technologies (or a different point of view), but what is seldom recorded is the sense of desolation and indeed mortality experienced by those unfortunate enough to live to see that their highly-developed skills are no longer wanted or needed.  As my meteor-watching friend Paul Martsching has said, “It is good we don’t live forever: we are a product of our times.”  He realizes full well that someday automated systems will count every meteor above the horizon far better and more completely than any visual meteor observer can, but for many years he has carefully recorded meteor activity many nights a year.  The data he collects will always be relevant as part of the historical record, at least, and the sheer joy of being out under the stars and away from light pollution can never be replaced by a computer.  To us, astronomy is something much deeper than what can be delivered through a computer screen.

We are a product of our times, and as we approach the twilight (or autumn) of our lives we don’t necessarily feel compelled to embrace every new thing that comes along.  Peace.

From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.  Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

To Catch a Shadow

Many times each week, all manner of asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects pass in front of stars, casting shadows a few miles wide all over the Earth.  There are several potential events each week at any particular location.  I use the word “potential” because there is still significant uncertainty in the paths for many of these events.  The orbits of most small solar system objects are not yet precisely known, and, to a lesser extent, there is some uncertainty in the position of the occulted (obscured) star.

On Sunday evening, November 20, I got lucky.  Not only did I record a 1.02 second occultation event, but I was lucky to see it at all as I was significantly south of the predicted path.

The star affected was Tycho 5182-758-1 (also known as BD -3° 5037) in Aquarius and the object that moved in front of it was the asteroid 430 Hybris, a space rock about 20 miles across that orbits once around the Sun every 4.8 years.  Many asteroids have interesting names, and Hybris is no exception.  In Greek mythology, Hybris is a spirit of insolence, violence, and outrageous behavior.  It is also an alternative form of the word hubris.  All quite appropriate given the outcome of the U.S. presidential election less than two weeks earlier.

Here is the video I recorded of the event:

Occultation of the star Tycho 5182-758-1 in Aquarius by the asteroid 430 Hybris

And here is the light curve I derived from the video which clearly shows the event:

Steve Messner (near Northfield, Minnesota) and I were the only ones to observe this event.  It was a miss for Steve, and he was much closer to the predicted path!

Why do we do it? Even a single positive observation can greatly improve our knowledge of the orbit of the asteroid or trans-Neptunian object.  More than one positive observation gives us valuable information about its size and shape.  We can discover asteroid/TNO satellites and even rings!  But that’s not all.  These occultation events can also give us valuable information about the star.  Its size, position, and the separation and position angle of new or known companion stars.  Someday, we may even be able to use these events to discover exoplanets!

If you love observational astronomy and would like to contribute scientifically valuable observations by observing occultation events, contact me and I will help you get started.  The more observers we have, the more valuable our scientific contribution will be.