Astronomers Hunt for Killer Asteroids

Eons ago there was a mass extinction of dinosaurs due to an asteroid striking the Earth. Such a catastrophic event does not happen often and if EIU Physics professor Dr. James Conwell and his collaborator, Robert Holmes, can help it, it won’t happen again. They are part of a collaboration that hunts for asteroids that could possibly collide with the Earth. Dr. Conwell and EIU Adjunct professor and local Astronomer Robert Holmes search for and track objects that orbit the sun and pass through the area where the Earth orbits.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Minor Planet Center partner with Mr. Holmes in his research to discover and track Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Any asteroid that approaches Earth’s orbit poses a potential threat of a collision that could create serious repercussions. NASA works diligently to monitor such occurrences in the interest of national security. To illustrate the significance of the EIU and Astronomical Research Institute (ARI) effort, consider these statistics: In 2010, Mr. Holmes executed over 11,000 NEO measurements (1/4 of all such measurements in the world). In 2011, he made over one-third (35.17%) of all NEO measurements. In other words, this local Observatory is responsible for more NEO data than anyplace else in the world. From his observatory in Westfield, Bob Holmes stands guard over our world.

EIU Student Tyler Linder

Students are an integral part of this work. Mr. Holmes works with schools around the world to analyze the multitude of data that he collects. EIU student, Tyler Linder, has collaborated with Mr. Holmes to win a NASA grant to continue and promote this work. Other EIU students get the benefit of having such a facility so close. The EIU Observatory is also available to students for learning and research. At the EIU Observatory, the students learn to find and photograph objects that are far too faint to see with the naked eye. They have been studying the shape and rotation of asteroids by watching the brightness of the object over time.

One way that this project has gone global is through Skynet (http://skynet.unc.edu/). A 30” telescope that EIU students helped to refurbish is linked to the internet for users throughout the Skynet world. In return, the Skynet network is available to EIU students and faculty. The program has allowed EIU students to collect data using a telescope in Chile from the comfort of their own room.

The excitement and importance of this work is palpable. Mr. Holmes is currently building a 50” telescope that will be the largest privately held telescope in the world. Dr. Conwell continues to lead an excited cadre of research students. Opportunities for students to present their findings at scientific meetings abound, and with all of this activity you can rest at night knowing that Mr. Holmes, Dr. Conwell, and the students are on the job watching out for major collisions with asteroids.