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The Research Project: Asteroid Orbit Determination

Orbital determination of an asteroid (or any other body in the solar system) requires observations of its position in the sky at least three separate times.

On the first full day of the program, students are organized into teams of three and taught how to select an appropriate near-earth asteroid to observe. They write an "observing proposal" similar to what an astronomer would submit to an observatory. By the third night, teams begin regular nighttime observing runs, accompanied by a teaching assistant. The telescope and camera are controlled by The Sky X Professional software, generously donated by Software Bisque.

Day 1: a team works on asteroid selection.

Day 1: orientation on the Takahashi astrograph.
After taking an image, the team must locate the asteroid's dot of light among the background stars, then precisely measure its position relative to known reference stars (assisted by The Sky software). They learn to write software using the open-source language Python.

After converting the positions from three or more observations to celestial coordinates, the students' software calculates the asteroid's velocity and acceleration vectors using numerical differentiation, then transforms those values to the six orbital elements that describe the asteroid's orbit.

In summary, teams of three students perform every step themselves: choosing their asteroid, pointing the telescope, taking the images, measuring the asteroid's position, converting to celestial coordinates, calculating the orbit. Some students go on to improve the accuracy of their calculated orbits using additional observations to make differential corrections. Finally, Visual Python also allows them to make an animation of their asteroid orbiting the sun!

Each team's observations are submitted for archiving at the Minor Planet Center of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.