Target Asteroids! Citizen Science: Tracking Near-Earth Asteroids for Science and Humanity

Dolores Hill

Dolores Hill is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy.

I am honored to be selected a White House Citizen Science Champion of Change to represent Target Asteroids!, a decade long program that expands the role of citizen scientists in cutting edge asteroid research and serves as a model for other scientist-citizen scientist collaborations. It is our vision that Target Asteroids!, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission citizen science program, will encourage more amateur astronomers to become citizen scientists to track near-Earth asteroids and support spacecraft missions to asteroids with their observations.

Target Asteroids! builds on the tremendous foundations of amateur astronomy – throughout history, amateur and professional astronomers have made exciting discoveries, collaborated to learn more about the cosmos, and teamed up to provide details about the Solar System. This project puts citizen scientists front and center in the efforts to learn more about asteroids and protect our planet. Citizen scientists provide valuable data to help planetary scientists characterize near-Earth asteroids and understand the process by which Main Belt asteroids may become near-Earth asteroids; essential steps to ascertaining the risk of impact with Earth that may affect the world’s inhabitants. I was inspired to establish a “Target Asteroids! list by the historical contributions of amateur astronomers and my own citizen science experiences. 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, led by Dante Lauretta (University of Arizona), is our country’s first asteroid sample return mission. It will launch in 2016, rendezvous with near-Earth asteroid (101955) Bennu in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023. OSIRIS-REx is an acronym for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer. OSIRIS-REx and its Target Asteroids! citizen science embody a perfect melding of astronomical asteroid science and hands-on meteoritics that seeks to understand our origins, evolution of the Solar System, ground truth between Earth-based telescope observations and laboratory studies, and secure the future of humanity by examination of orbital dynamics, physical properties, and composition of a potentially hazardous asteroid. It will be another important step toward understanding the more than 625,000 known asteroids especially near-Earth asteroids. And amateur astronomer citizen scientists can be a part of it!

Target Asteroids! co-lead and OSIRIS-REx mission asteroid astronomer, Carl Hergenrother, selects asteroids for the Target Asteroids! list that are mostly dark carbon-rich near-Earth asteroids easily accessible by sample return spacecraft or are analogs to Bennu. Amateur astronomer citizen scientists make valuable observations whenever they are able and submit them via the internet. They have the expertise and instrumentation to provide images, astrometric (position), and photometric (brightness) data for asteroids. They have a broad geographical distribution and are able to observe more often than professional astronomers. Many observations combined over a wide range of asteroid orbital positions allow scientists to increase knowledge of the near-Earth asteroid population overall and Bennu, specifically.

Even in its first year, Target Asteroids! citizen science program has already proven to be a highly successful collaboration. We far exceeded our expectations with 138 participants from beginners to expert observers from 26 countries and 25 states who have submitted 82 observations of 17 NEAs in the first year of this decade long program. In addition, 9 Target Asteroids! partners bring special expertise to support the program and leverage both NASA and private resources. OSIRIS-REx citizen science collaboration is one step in the right direction toward STEM-related activities and learning for citizens both in and out of school; yet another way that OSIRIS-REx Secures Our Future. Scientific inquiry and the threat of asteroid impact know no geographical boundaries. The benefits of the Target Asteroids! citizen science program extend to all of humanity, now, and in the future.

Happily, I have enjoyed the support of many in my scientific endeavors: from my first look through a telescope to years of laboratory research on meteorites. My message to scientists is: recall your early days when someone gave you the opportunity to participate in your first science project. It was exhilarating; right? You might be coaching a scientist-in-training or helping a member of the public understand how science is conducted. Citizen scientists are excited to contribute to your program, interact with and learn from you. To citizen scientists: you are valued, enthusiastic and dedicated partners whose observations and data enable science to progress. You are one important part of the whole community of science; together we can be more than the sum of the parts. 

Dolores Hill is a Meteoriticist and Co-Lead of Target Asteroids!.

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