A British astronomer has discovered a strange spinning object. The fact that it is spinning in itself is not strange, but the speed it is doing so has raised some eyebrows. The near-Earth asteroid 2008 HJ has been spotted spinning at a rate of one rotation every 42.7 seconds, breaking the record for the fastest rotating natural object in the Solar System. It is so fast that it has been designated as a “super-fast rotator”. What makes this discovery even more interesting was that it was spotted by an amateur astronomer when using the Australian Faulkes Telescope South observatory, operating it remotely over the Internet, in his Dorset home in the south of the UK…
Asteroid 2008 HJ smashes the previous record for fastest rotating object by 35 seconds. The previous record holder was asteroid 2000 DO8 (discovered eight years ago) with a rotational period of 78 seconds. This new discovery comes from a new project funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which gives UK schools and colleges access to the world-class Faulkes Telescopes based in Australia and Hawaii. This finding is one of four recent successes in the search for small near-Earth asteroids under 150 meters in diameter. In April this year, the first significant discovery by the project was of asteroid 2008 GP3 with a measured rotation period of 11.8 minutes.
Perhaps even more exciting than the discovery itself is who spotted asteroid 2008 HJ in the first place. This isn’t a news release from the Australian observatory, it isn’t even an announcement from an academic institution; the discovery was made by retiree Richard Miles from the comfort of his own home. Miles is an amateur astronomer and vice-president of the British Astronomical Association (BAA). He was able to carry out his research via a remote connection to the Faulkes Telescope South on the other side of the planet, in the UK. This charity based program enables enthusiasts and students to control the research-grade two-metre diameter telescopes, and the discoveries are coming thick and fast.
“A discovery like this demonstrates the capabilities of amateur astronomers and school students to produce exciting scientific results if given the right tools. By providing Richard with access to a big telescope we have smashed the previous record, and opened up the search for even faster objects to UK amateur astronomers and school students. This helps to put all that classroom science, maths and IT to real use!” – Dr Paul Roche, Director of the Faulkes Telescope Project at Cardiff University, Wales
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The finding of the 12×24 metre asteroid appears to be consistent with near-Earth asteroid theory, and many sub-minute period asteroids can be expected. It’s just that not very many have been discovered as yet, so with the help of UK schools and amateur astronomers, more can be expected to be found.
Near-Earth asteroids are a concern for the future of the planet as there are many Earth-crossing rocky bodies that could cause significant damage to us on the ground should one come our way. Although the skies appear clear for now, our knowledge of these rogue objects is very limited. It is generally understood that these spinning pieces of rock (often weighing in at thousands of tonnes) are fragments from ancient collisions in the early Solar System. Projects such as Faulkes have an obvious advantage in increasing our knowledge in that it opens up observation time to a vast number of astronomers.