WASHINGTON, April 18, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A new NASA outreach project will enlist the help of amateur astronomers to discover near-Earth objects (NEOs) and study their characteristics. NEOs are asteroids with orbits that occasionally bring them close to the Earth.
Starting today, a new citizen science project called "Target Asteroids!" will support NASA's Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission objectives to improve basic scientific understanding of NEOs. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in 2016 and will study material from an asteroid.
Amateur astronomers will help better characterize the population of NEOs, including their position, motion, rotation and changes in the intensity of light they emit. Professional astronomers will use this information to refine theoretical models of asteroids, improving their understanding about asteroids similar to the one OSIRIS-REx will encounter in 2019, designated 1999 RQ36.
OSIRIS-REx will map the asteroid's global properties, measure non-gravitational forces and provide observations that can be compared with data obtained by telescope observations from Earth. In 2023, OSIRIS-REx will return back to Earth at least 2.11 ounces (60 grams) of surface material from the asteroid.
Target Asteroids! data will be useful for comparisons with actual mission data. The project team plans to expand participants in 2014 to students and teachers.
"Although few amateur astronomers have the capability to observe 1999 RQ36 itself, they do have the capability to observe other targets," said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Previous observations indicate 1999 RQ36 is made of primitive materials. OSIRIS-REx will supply a wealth of information about the asteroid's composition and structure. Data also will provide new insights into the nature of the early solar system and its evolution, orbits of NEOs and their impact risks, and the building blocks that led to life on Earth.
Amateur astronomers long have provided NEO tracking observations in support of NASA's NEO Observation Program. A better understanding of NEOs is a critically important precursor in the selection and targeting of future asteroid missions.
"For well over 10 years, amateurs have been important contributors in the refinement of orbits for newly discovered near-Earth objects," said Edward Beshore, deputy principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta is the mission's principal investigator at the University of Arizona. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.