Two recent asteroid discoveries made by an amateur astronomer highlight what is possible, with access to the right equipment.
When it comes to hunting for new astronomical discoveries these days, the competition is stiff. Gone are the days of the lone astronomer with a telescope perched on a lonely hilltop, patiently sweeping the skies looking for something new and out of place.
These days, it’s the ‘robotic eyes’ of all-sky surveys are more likely to make astronomical discoveries. Tirelessly canvassing the sky from dark locales night after night, these sentinels have definitely won the war when it comes to new discoveries. You’re more likely to see a survey name like ‘ATLAS’ or ‘PanSTARRS’ on a new comet today than say, ‘Johnson’ or ‘Smith’.
As of writing this, there are close to 624,000 numbered asteroid discoveries and counting. This goes back to 1 Ceres, discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi on the first night of the 19th century. While comets are named after their discoverers, the rights for naming asteroids goes to the discoverer, though these also need final approval from the International Astronomical Union.
A Tough (But Not Impossible) Search
That’s not to say that there aren’t still discoveries to be made. Increasingly, amateur astronomers are simply moving their efforts online. Remote telescopes offering observing time worldwide are now becoming available. A pair of recent asteroid discoveries made by amateur astronomer Filipp Romanov highlights this trend. Universe Today caught up with Filipp recently, to find just how he did it.
“Currently, in astronomy, many asteroids have already been discovered, for example, bright or close to Earth,” Filipp Romanov told Universe Today. “But among minor planets fainter than +20th apparent magnitude, unknown ones can still be found. For an amateur astronomer, this is difficult to do due to the fact that large automatic sky surveys constantly monitor the sky and often find new objects.”
To that end, Romanov took an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach.
“In 2022, I got a few hours of observing time (for my astrometric measurements of comets and asteroids) at the two-metre aperture robotic Liverpool Telescope (LT) located on the island of La Palma (in the Canary Islands).”
A Cosmic Quest Hits Paydirt
“At the end of October-beginning of November 2022, I tried to search for asteroids using the LT (Liverpool Telescope); I found two asteroids in the resulting images for which the Minor Planet Checker showed no matches with known asteroids. I observed them for a few days, but then there was updated information that they were already known.”
It happens. The data was still useful to refine the known asteroids’ orbits. Undeterred, Romanov continued his search.
“Before the November 2022 New Moon, I continued to search for asteroids. I had chosen the areas of the sky near the ecliptic and in the opposition region.” This region tends to be prime hunting grounds for new asteroids, as they’re at their brighest and closest to the Earth. These areas also hadn’t been recently covered by ongoing sky surveys, which Romanov found in the MPC’s Sky Coverage Plots database.
“On November 23rd, 2022, two fields of 10 by 10 arc minutes were photographed, and on one of them I found an unknown asteroid which I designated as RFD0004, and on a second field I found an asteroid, RFD0005. I made astrometric measurements and sent my data to the Minor Planet Center.”
Confirming New Discoveries
“I calculated (using the New Object Ephemeris Generator) where the asteroids will be in the sky in a day, and on November 24, 2022, I received new photographs of the requested areas of the sky. I found RFD0004 again but I didn’t find RFD0005, but I found another asteroid, RFD0006.”
Tracking the asteroids in their orbits around the Sun is key to identification as something new. “I continued to track these asteroids for a month, and in December 2022 these asteroids received provisional designations in the Minor Planet Center database: RFD0006 was designated 2022 WY16, and RFD0004 was 2022 WY17.” Both asteroids were at about +21st magnitude at the time of discovery.
Confirming a discovery, however, can often take months, sometimes years. Objects often get lost in the glare of the Sun, or become too faint to recover as they move away from the Earth. “Assigning permanent designations (numbers) to minor planets occurs when their orbits are well known,” says Romanov. “But in the case of these asteroids, they were found in archival images of sky surveys (in this case, the earliest images of 2022 WY16 were found recently in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, from 2002) and this made it possible to increase their observation arcs.”
These discoveries along with others were then numbered and released in the July 2023 Minor Planet Center Circular. These are the first asteroids discovered by Romanov, and the first numbered asteroids discovered by the Liverpool Telescope.
Finally, it came time to name the asteroids. “Numbered asteroids can be named, and in July 2023 I proposed—to the Working Group Small Bodies Nomenclature (WGSBN) functional Working Group of the International Astronomical Union—naming these asteroids in honor of my great-grandfathers.”
The asteroids found by Filipp Romanov are:
2022 WY16 is now 623826 Alekseyvarkin, named after the discoverer’s great-grandfather Aleksey Makarovich Varkin, who was wounded in World War II while rescuing horses, and later awarded for the act of heroism.
On a 4.4 year orbit around the Sun, 623826 Alekseyvarkin is a main-belt asteroid, and a likely member of the Eunomia family of asteroids.
Next, 2022 WY17 is now 623827 Nikandrilyich, named after the discoverer’s great-grandfather Nikandr Ilyich Romanov, who studied at veterinary and military schools and later worked as a foreman after military service.
On a 5.78 year orbit, asteroid 623827 Nikandrilyich is an outer main-belt asteroid.
An Impressive Amateur Astronomer Resume
Filipp observes from far eastern Russia in Nakhodka. This unique locale often fills coverage in a needed longitude gap when it comes to observers worldwide. At age 26, he is self-educated in astronomy. Filipp is the discoverer of 81 variable stars, 3 novae, 2 supernovae, 4 binary stars, and now, 2 asteroids. Not bad.
Romanov has a passion for astronomy, and his path serves to inspire anyone out there to ‘just do it.’
“I, my mother and our 18-year old cat are now in the same locality Yuzhno-Morskoy (in my small homeland) near the city of Nakhodka, in the housing of my old grandparents where I independently (based on self-education) make my discoveries in astronomy as an amateur astronomer. I love to study and popularize the science of astronomy, and plan to study as an astronomer at university in the near future in order to make even greater contributions to the science of astronomy.”
A New Generation of Astronomical Discovery
An amazing story, for sure. And there’s more to come. All-sky surveys such as the Vera Rubin Observatory will come online in early 2025. Vera Rubin promises to scour the sky several times a night down below +21st magnitude. These surveys will produce a fire hose of images for anyone with an internet connection to scour though. The time for online sleuths to hunt for asteroids and comets has never been better.
Naming a space rock offers a small bit of immortality, out in the depths of the solar system. You can imagine asteroid miners in a future straight out of The Expanse, approaching a prospective space rock. They may wonder just where its obscure name came from as it looms ahead. Fraser (the publisher of Universe Today) has an asteroid, 158092 Frasercain, as do several names in the online skeptical community. As of writing this, I have yet to have the honor, but you just never know…
Congrats to Romanov on his surreptitious discoveries, and here’s to more to come!