Provo, Utah - October 2017
At one of the largest annual gatherings of planetary scientists, the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting (DPS) in Provo, Utah, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory’s Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) reported on several recent telescope and surveying advances, and the resulting dramatic increase in their rate of Near-Earth object (NEO) discoveries.
Highlights presented by CSS included the full commissioning of new 10K x 10K CCD detectors on their two survey telescopes. The new cameras coupled with additional optical modifications further enlarged the fields of view to 5.0 square degrees at the 1.5-m Mt Lemmon reflector and to a whopping 19.4 square degrees at the Mt Bigelow 0.7-m Schmidt telescope. For near-Earth asteroid surveys, larger sky coverage equates directly to increased asteroid discovery, and the new CSS cameras appear to be delivering on their promise. During the 6-day conference alone, CSS observers back in Arizona posted about 100 newly discovered near-Earth asteroids, a remarkable discovery rate that was noticed by other NEO survey groups and NASA officials attending the DPS meeting.
In addition to new hardware, CSS has developed new custom software tools to aid in systematically surveying the night sky and tracking newly discovered asteroids. Typically, a new asteroid candidate requires several observations spread out over 1-3 days before it is confirmed as a new discovery. Since there may be dozens of CSS asteroid candidates to track during the course of one night, the new planner software enables observers to automate much of the process, allowing the computers to design the most efficient use of the telescope time. Computers however, cannot yet determine a real asteroid from the many false positives that appear on the digital images, and it is therefore left for observers to validate asteroid detections in near real time, a task that CSS observers have done very successfully for almost two decades now.
Check out the CSS iPoster. For this years’ DPS meeting CSS opted to use the new ‘iPoster’ format, a digital interactive platform using large touch-screen monitors, allowing for the use of multimedia elements including high-resolution images and plots, audio files, and video. The CSS poster took full advantage of the format and embedded several ‘Travelers in the Night’ audio files. Travelers in the Night is a long-standing audio series consisting of 2-minute documentaries about astronomy, asteroids, and asteroid survey science. The series was created and is hosted by long-time CSS astronomer Dr. Al Grauer.