NASA and other international agencies work together to detect asteroids, but much of the effort relies upon individual astronomers.
The space-exploration nonprofit known as the Planetary Society has given out Shoemaker grants, which fund amateur observers. The money is used primarily to help the astronomers upgrade their equipment so they can better track, characterize, and sometimes discover asteroids and near-Earth objects.
Someone who has received more grants than anyone is Robert Holmes. In fact, in 2015, Holmes used the grant to add a sensitive CCD camera to the 1.3-meter telescope hosted in his Westfield, IL-based Astronomical Research Institute. He spoke with Tech Briefs about his path from "amateur" astronomer to NASA pro.
Tech Briefs: What was your personal path to the Astronomical Research Center?
Robert Holmes: We began our efforts with student education in 2002 when the Astronomical Research Institute was created. We started with about 12 schools in the U.S. while working through the University of California Berkeley. Our goal was to build a not-for-profit organization that would reach out to schools nationwide. By 2008, we had grown to over 200 schools with our work with the International Astronomy Research Campaign.
Tech Briefs: Can you talk about the process of building your own observatories?
Holmes: We have now built six observatories since 2000. Today we operate four observatories — with telescopes that are 24 inches in diameter to our largest, which is 50 inches. We currently operate one of the largest privately owned telescopes in the U.S. All of our observatories were constructed with roll-off roofs instead of domes, like a lot of commercial observatories have. This has allowed us to put our funding directly to the telescopes rather than the building that houses them, maximizing the amount of research we can do.
Tech Briefs: Now you're working with NASA, but can you tell us about what inspired your work in the beginning?
Holmes: Our inspiration came from Dr. Robert Kirschner in October of 1999, when I heard a lecture given by him at the University of Illinois. His lecture was on supernova research, which inspired me to attempt to discover those types of objects. Within a year, we had discovered our first two. Then, another four supernova discoveries were made after that before transitioning to asteroid research. Our goal initially was to simply discover a few asteroids; to date, we have made over 900 discoveries.
Two years later, in 2006, we became interested in asteroids that could potentially hit the Earth. A year later we had decided to write a NASA grant for funding, since we now had a 32-inch telescope to conduct this research with. In 2007, our grant was funded and our research on a full-time basis had begun. In just 10 years, we had gone from the newest entry into the world of NEO research to becoming the observatory with the most NEO observations for NASA in the world, with over 160,000.
Tech Briefs: What is an average day for you? What are you focused on now?
Holmes: An average day is often quite long. Today I've worked 20 hours out of 24, running telescopes and improving the facilities here at ARI. It is not at all uncommon to find us working here, running four telescopes at the same time and doing this for 10-11 straight hours. Then, it takes another 2-3 hours to extract the data into a form which is usable by NASA. Our primary focus is near-Earth-object research using all four telescopes. We expect to continue our research for NASA until the catalog of all the hazardous objects are discovered and have established orbits.