Asteroid searcher Kowalski hopes his discoveries won't produce direct impact

2014-01-02T16:01:00Z Asteroid searcher Kowalski hopes his discoveries won't produce direct impactTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on October 26, 2008.

Rich Kowalski is a jovial fellow who loves his job but approaches it with a certain sense of dread.

Kowalski doesn't want to be the guy who finds the asteroid headed for Earth that will wipe out our species.

But that's pretty much his job description these days: Watch the skies. Sound the alarm.

"I don't want to be the one, but that is the name of the game," Kowalski says.

This month, Kowalski earned at least a footnote in the astronomy books by becoming the first to spot an asteroid before it crashed into Earth's atmosphere as a meteor - heady stuff for a high school graduate who, three years ago, was driving tanker trucks.

Kowalski's discovery vaporized in a 1-kiloton explosion over Sudan before dawn on Oct. 7 - less than 24 hours after he spotted it from a 60-inch telescope atop Mount Lemmon.

That was a little asteroid - less than 2 meters long. If he ever finds a big one, say the size of the 6-mile-wide one that scientists think wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years back, Kowalski hopes to provide a little more notice. A couple of decades at least - preferably a century or more.

That might be enough time to do something. A rocket with a small nuclear device would be enough to nudge that baby off course, said Ed Beshore.

Beshore is survey operations manager for Catalina Sky Survey, funded by congressional mandate and run out of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab. The survey's astronomers have spotted lots of large asteroids, none, thankfully, on a direct collision course with Earth.

The sky survey and four other programs have, however, found 757 Near Earth Objects, or NEOs. Their congressional mandate is to find 90 percent of those a kilometer (about 0.6 of a mile) or more in length and chart their courses.

The only one that really bears watching so far, said Beshore, is Apophis, which is scheduled to pass close to Earth in 2029.

There is no prediction of impact. Apophis is about 300 meters long and could cause "regional damage" were it to hit, said Beshore.

There is some talk about launching a mission to put a radio beacon on Apophis, Beshore said, to gather more precise data on its path.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech coordinates the work of all the NEO programs, two of which are based at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory: the Catalina Sky Survey and Spacewatch, which has telescopes on Kitt Peak.

Catalina Sky Watch has recently found the lion's share of the objects - about 70 percent of those discovered in each of the past three years. "We have highly efficient software," said Kowalski, "all written in-house."

The asteroid he found earlier this month was no big deal, Kowalski says.

"Things are falling out of the sky constantly. This object . . . was only newsworthy because we saw it.

"Typically, every object we find seems to be the same thing. There was nothing that stood out on this object, until I woke up the next day and had 100 e-mails in my in-box."

The Sky Survey telescopes, the 60-incher atop Mount Lemmon, a smaller one with a wider field of view a few miles down the road at Mount Bigelow, and a third in Australia, typically find three Near Earth Objects per night, said Rik Hill, who directed the 60-inch telescope on Mount Lemmon Wednesday night this past week.

"I always joke with people that if I do the job to my utmost capability, I'll find the thing that'll wipe out our civilization," said Hill.

Hill sits at a computer terminal in a room next to the dome that houses the telescope. His job is to select a slice of the sky and photograph it four times, in 30-second exposures about 10 minutes apart.

That information is then analyzed by a software program that first discards the objects that haven't moved between exposures - stars. It can also weed out objects that have motions similar to those in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Then the observer weeds out things the computer might miss - cosmic rays or reflections creating false images.

Anything left over is set aside for another run of images, taken at the object's predicted path.

The Near Earth Object data are then sent to the Minor Planet Center at Harvard, which verifies it and posts the data on a Web site available to an army of astronomers across the globe, both amateurs and professionals.

"Anyone in the world can look at them within two or three minutes," said Kowalski.

Those extra eyes allow the program to quickly pin down the orbit of the objects, he said.

That's what happened with Kowalski's discovery of 2008 TC3 on Oct. 5, shortly before midnight. That's why he woke up around noon to those 100 e-mails.

Other astronomers had tracked his object and predicted that it would enter Earth's atmosphere. It was 300,000 miles away and moving at a speed of 12 kilometers per second.

At about 9 a.m., an amateur astronomer made the first prediction of impact.

At 10:30 a.m., the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab officially announced it would "hit Europe or South Africa later today."

"The amateurs and pros went into high gear," Beshore said.

"From 9 a.m. to 7:15 p.m., well over 570 observations went into determining an impact solution."

It was ultimately predicted the asteroid would enter the Earth's atmosphere before dawn in northern Sudan - 7:46 p.m. Tucson time. Observers had narrowed the impact point to within 100 kilometers.

It hit where and when predictions said it would.

Nobody reported seeing it, but several observations of light and sound were made.

A Dutch KLM airline pilot reported a flash on the horizon. Security cameras at a beach resort on the Red Sea in Egypt recorded light reflecting off buildings.

Beshore said the U.S. Air Force issued a terse release saying one of its satellites had recorded the flash. Sound monitors in the region recorded an explosion estimated to be the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.

That's a good reason to predict collision of small objects, said Beshore and Kowalski. The explosion of a meteor entering the atmosphere could be mistaken for a nuclear blast.

Kowalski said he would have loved to see his discovery hit the atmosphere. It would have glowed with the intensity of the full moon for about 15 seconds, he said.

For comparison, the ones you see streaking across the sky during a meteor shower are about the size of a grain of sand. The really intense ones that leave glowing trails? Maybe a pebble. This one was 6 to 10 feet long. Small pieces of it could have actually landed.

The importance of the prediction, said Beshore, is that it validates the technology that has been developed to watch the sky.

The CCD (charged couple device) cameras attached to the telescopes have it all over the photographic plates scientists used to employ. They see more in a 15-second exposure than the old tech-nology could record in four hours.

The computer programs, which disregard fixed stars and take into account previously cataloged objects, make it possible to zero in on those that might be problematic.

In the end, though, it's a judgment call, made by a human looking at a computer screen, and figuring out what that moving object is.

"The observer makes the final decision," said Beshore. "The human eye is still just a great discriminator. Having observers making that final determination of realness allows us to build these very sensitive systems."

Kowalski is enjoying his current fame, but, mostly, he's just tickled to be working in the field he has loved since he was a little boy.

He's a self-taught astronomer, like many of those who do the follow-up work on his discoveries. He was an accomplished amateur and organized a Web-based home for astronomers interested in minor planets and Near Earth Objects 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, he worked a variety of day jobs: baggage handler, emergency medical technician, truck driver.

He still works two part-time day jobs as a photographer and flight instructor.

His real career starts when the sun sets - watching the sky for the big one that might hit us, hoping he never sees it.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4251. On Twitter @BeckyPallack

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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