Asteroid inspires winning science project

Since 2001, more than 1500 middle-school and high-school students who have been award winners at national and international science fairs have had minor planets (commonly called asteroids) named in their honor by the Ceres Connection program at Lincoln Laboratory in conjunction with the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Caroline von Wurden is the only one of the 1500 to turn this honor into another award-winning science fair project.

Caroline von Wurden, seen here with her award-winning project at the 2009 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Reno, Nevada, developed the project around minor planet 23265, which was named von Wurden in honor of Caroline when she placed second in the 2007 ISEF.

Caroline's entry into the 2009 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) demonstrated her three-month-long effort to plot the orbit of the minor planet named in her honor in 2007 (originally identified as 23265 and then named von Wurden). Caroline, a senior at Los Alamos High School who is headed for the University of California at Berkeley in the fall, used three telescopes—a 4-inch home telescope, the 16-inch telescope that is part of the gamma ray burster automated search system run by Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a new 2.4-meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory of New Mexico Tech—to achieve better than a 0.5% determination of von Wurden's orbit.

"The hardest part for me was understanding how to calculate the orbit. Not having learned the math involved in school, it took quite a while to figure out," says Caroline. "However, it was well worth the time. Doing this project gave me a new appreciation for astronomy, and I had a great time because it was my asteroid I was looking at!" The project not only was an astronomical investigation but also fulfilled Caroline's goal of establishing that her asteroid, which is well localized for the next fifty years, is not on a collision course with Earth.

Minor planet von Wurden is one of more than 200,000 space objects, 30,000+ of which have been numbered and available for naming as minor planets, that have been discovered by Lincoln Laboratory's Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program. LINEAR, using two ground-based electro-optical deep-space surveillance telescopes located on the White Sands Missile Range near Socorro, New Mexico, has discovered better than 50% of all known asteroids. To the discoverer of these asteroids go the rights to recommend names for them. In 2001, the Laboratory decided the best use of the naming rights was to seek to reward exceptional science students and their teachers with asteroids named in their honor. Thus, the Ceres Connection program was born; the young scientists and their teachers were identified through science competitions, like ISEF, offered by the Society for Science and the Public.

Caroline's 2009 project, "Determining the Orbital Elements of Minor Planet 23265," is the third of Caroline's notable ISEF entries. In 2007, as a high-school sophomore, Caroline was awarded a second place in the physics and astronomy category, earning the honor of having a minor planet named for her. That project, called "Great Balls of Fire," described her attempts to create ball lightning, a rare phenomenon, in a laboratory. In 2008, encouraged by the judges' accolades on her 2007 project, Caroline extended "Great Balls of Fire," investigating ball plasma's dynamics and interactions with the surrounding air. In the physics and astronomy category, she won a first-place award and a Best of Show award with "Great Balls of Fire, part 2"; however, for the Ceres Connection, an asteroid name is a one-time honor.

At the 2009 ISEF awards ceremony, Jenifer Evans, a staff member in the Sensor Technology and System Applications Group who is actively involved in the Ceres Connection, sought out Caroline to see the project based on the LINEAR discovery. "Caroline had data over a few weeks time and covered the improvement of orbit accuracy as a function of length. Her final set of orbital elements agrees with the Jet Propulsion Lab's elements to ~100 years. In one set of data imagery, she spotted another asteroid in the same field as hers. Alas, it wasn't her own discovery; it was another LINEAR discovery from last year. In another set of data, she spotted a very bright asteroid discovered in the 1920s. She did a nice job of putting together an animation of her orbit and the orbits of those two other asteroids, showing how they could only be spotted in the same field on those days. It was a very nice, very thorough project," says Evans.

While the Ceres Connection, whose mission is to promote science education and encourage young scientists, did not initially motivate Caroline, a veteran of many local, regional, and finally international science fairs, it provided her with inspiration for her last high-school science fair project, and another winner at that.

Posted July 2009

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