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Arizona, Australia And Asteroids
find them before they find us - 1999JM8 - Goldstone, Arecibo and JPL Image Canberra - September 8, 1999A new collaboration between astronomers at the University of Arizona and the Australian National University will make it easier to spot and track asteroids headed towards Earth.

The UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics have agreed to refurbish a little-used telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory (near Coonabarabran) with modern detectors and computers to carry out a search for potentially hazardous asteroids. The Uppsala Schmidt Telescope (26-inch) at Siding Spring will be used for the only asteroid-search program with access to the entire southern sky.

Stephen M. Larson, senior research associate at LPL, this week is at Siding Spring Observatory to discuss the planned upgrade. The southern survey will be patterned after the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) that Larson and his team conduct from Mount Bigelow in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson using the recently refurbished 42 cm (16-inch) UA Catalina Schmidt telescope.

Over the next two years, the photographic Uppsala Schmidt Telescope will be equipped with a very sensitive electronic detector array that will provide a large field in search of moving asteroids.

Computer pointing control and automatic detection software will be used to cover as much area as possible in hopes of identifying Earth-approaching asteroids.

The NASA Near-Earth Object Observation Program seeks to identify and catalog 90 percent of the potentially hazardous asteroids larger than one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) in diameter in the next 10 years. This Southern Hemisphere survey will cover an important gap in current survey coverage.

Until the refurbishment is complete, Robert H. McNaught of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA) is making follow-up observations of potentially hazardous objects found by Northern Hemisphere surveys but which have traveled south out of the range of the northern telescopes.

These followup observations with the 1-meter telescope at Siding Spring are critical in deriving an accurate orbit that will determine if the object might one day impact the Earth.

Larson and others on the CSS team are completing the major NASA-funded upgrade of the UA Catalina Schmidt telescope they began in 1997. The Catalina telescope has a 3x3-degree field of view, or a square patch of sky equivalent to six lunar diameters on a side.

The heart of the telescope camera is a sensitive 4,096 x 4,096-pixel charge-coupled device (CCD). The telescope is capable of finding objects as faint as 20th magnitude, close to sky background level generated by scattered city light and auroral glow that brightens Earth's upper atmosphere.

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