Student may have spotted rare asteroid
Tara Steiner ’15 had been peering at 8,000 computer images taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey when she noticed a couple of objects that appeared to be asteroids but were spewing gas.
She showed them to Dr. Mike Solontoi, assistant professor of physics, and he was immediately intrigued. “There’s only about a dozen of these known,” he said. “I’m really excited about these objects.”
First some basic definitions: asteroids are rocks orbiting the sun, mostly in a belt between Mars and Jupiter, while comets are rocks with ice that spew plumes or off-gas vapor as they orbit the sun.
Dr. Solontoi, director of LC’s Belk Astronomical Observatory, said the objects are likely asteroids that are behaving like comets for one of two reasons: either they have some ice (but only off-gas as they near the sun), or they get hit by another object, exposing ice trapped in the rock.
Active asteroids like these were only identified for the first time in 2006, and it may be that Tara has discovered one or two more, Dr. Solontoi said.
He and Tara had hoped to get verification in September, when they secured online time (remotely from Lynchburg) on the 3.5 meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory (APO) in New Mexico. Unfortunately, Hurricane Odile picked that time to blanket the western part of the US with clouds.
“I’ve never lost observations to a hurricane before,” Dr. Solontoi said.
Tara was disappointed but kept her perspective. “It seems more likely a raid of scorpions would come by,” she said.
Her comets will now be hiding behind the sun until spring, when she hopes to have another chance on the APO telescope.
An environmental science major, Tara said she was drawn to science through science fiction, but doubted she could do the physics to study astronomy. Instead, she decided to do research with Dr. Solontoi. She found nine comets and believes that at least one is an asteroid masquerading as a comet.
Tara’s research project is a mini-version of the work Dr. Solontoi did for his dissertation. “I looked through 200,000 of these images. They gave me a PhD for finding 36,” he joked.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Lynchburg College Magazine.