SwRI And Citizen Scientists Study Kuiper Belt Objects

This is an artist’s impression of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO), located on the outer rim of our solar system at a staggering distance of 4 billion miles from the Sun. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

This is an artist’s impression of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO), located on the outer rim of our solar system at a staggering distance of 4 billion miles from the Sun. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

October 28, 2014 – Cal Poly and the Southwest Research Institute office in Boulder, Colorado have received a $1 million collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation to continue a citizen-scientist astronomy project in rural communities in the Western U.S. stretching from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. More than 40 towns along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges and down the Colorado River will receive telescopes and training through the grant.

The towns in this second phase of the project will join 13 pilot communities to form the Research and Education Collaborative Occultation Network (RECON). Scientists John Keller, a Cal Poly physics professor, and SwRI planetary scientist Marc Buie will lead the network of teachers, students and amateur astronomers in measuring the sizes of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

“This project is an innovative and exciting opportunity for students and community members from across the Western U.S. to directly contribute to our understanding of the Kuiper Belt,” said Keller.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system. KBOs belong to a unique class of solar system objects that has never been visited by spacecraft and which contain clues to the origin of our solar system.

At predicted times, KBOs that pass between Earth and a given star will hide the star from view, an astronomical event called an occultation. Observers located in the path of a KBO’s shadow can record the star blinking out and reappearing. The length of time that the KBO blocks the starlight can be used to determine its size. Because of the inherent uncertainty in the predicted location of each shadow’s path, Buie and Keller are recruiting participants along a 1,200-mile stretch from Canada to Mexico.

Buie has been involved in the discovery of KBOs over the past two decades. “Now that we know these objects exist, we want to know more about them,” Buie said. “Working with our citizen scientists is an effective way to find out the size, shape and several other characteristics of the KBOs we study, which in turn will shed light on the origins of our solar system.”

Both Buie and Keller see the benefits of RECON stretching far beyond what scientists will learn about KBOs. “These rural cities joining the RECON project are highly underserved communities,” Keller said. “This makes the excitement of scientific discovery real for a whole network of high school students and citizen scientists.”

“The town of Hawthorne, Nev., and the Mineral County School District now have a telescope to share for educational and community use, the first time ever,” said community member Kathy Trujillo. “The high school was able to offer an astronomy class. Imagine the wonder in a student’s eyes when she sees the rings of Saturn for the first time.”

During fall 2014, Keller and Buie will recruit team members through trips to Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and California. The full network will be up and running by April 2015.

“It’s so exciting that federal funding will allow our students to grow and learn with the RECON project throughout their high school careers,” said Trujillo. “The benefits of this project, including scientific research, are hard to comprehend.”

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has recently uncovered three Kuiper Belt objects the agency’s New Horizons spacecraft could potentially visit after it flies by Pluto in July 2015. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado is principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.