Prize Winner Aims to Detect Asteroids from Sun’s Direction

Joseph DeMartini, a University of Maryland astronomy Ph.D. student, has been awarded the inaugural Schweickart Prize on June 28. This recognition comes with a $10,000 grant from the B612 Foundation and honors innovative ideas in planetary defense.

The Schweickart Prize

Named after Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, the Schweickart Prize aims to support graduate students with groundbreaking proposals for planetary defense. The prize will be awarded annually, fostering a new generation of astronomers committed to safeguarding Earth.

DeMartini’s Proposal

DeMartini’s proposal involves an international campaign to detect asteroids and comets approaching Earth from the direction of the sun. This area is currently under-monitored due to the brightness of the sky during daytime. His approach involves using ground-based telescopes during twilight hours, specifically an hour before sunrise and after sunset, to focus on this region.

Targeting Apollo and Aten Asteroids

The primary goal is to identify asteroids in Apollo and Aten orbits. Apollo asteroids spend most of their time outside Earth’s orbit, while Aten asteroids are usually within Earth’s orbit. These objects are of particular interest because they have the highest potential for impact with Earth.

“In order to see asteroids in the Aten family during any large fraction of their orbit, you would need to be looking in the direction of the sun,” DeMartini explained.

Rubin Observatory and Future Observations

DeMartini hopes that the prize will support his proposal for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile to conduct a detailed survey of the near-sun region during twilight. Additional observations from a network of ground-based observatories at sunrise and sunset could help verify these discoveries. Advances in NEO (Near-Earth Object) verification methods will further support orbit characterization.

Overcoming Brightness Challenges

Ground-based telescopes typically avoid the inner solar system due to the sky’s brightness. However, DeMartini noted that during twilight, when the sun is just below the horizon, the sky is still slightly bright but manageable for telescopic observations. This unique approach could help overcome the challenge of solar brightness and enable the detection of otherwise hidden objects.

Support and Sponsorship

The Schweickart Prize is sponsored by notable figures and organizations, including Anousheh Ansari, Barrington Crater Co, Future Ventures, Geoffrey Notkin, the Jurvetson Family Foundation, Meteor Crater, Randy Schweickart and Michelle Heng, and Rusty B. Schweickart and Joanne Keys. Rusty Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut, co-founded the Association of Space Explorers and the B612 Foundation.

With the support of the Schweickart Prize, Joseph DeMartini’s innovative proposal has the potential to significantly enhance our ability to detect and monitor asteroids approaching from the sun’s direction, thereby contributing to planetary defense efforts and the protection of Earth.

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