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Rare binary asteroids discovered by undergraduate students

By Liji Varghese | Last Updated: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 - 17:27

Zee Media Bureau/Liji Varghese

New Delhi: Undergraduate students taking classes for non-astronomy majors at the University of Maryland have made a rare discovery- a pair of binary asteroids that orbit and eclipse each other.

The students who chose to study the asteroid 3905 Doppler, discovered that the space rock was not one but a pair of binary asteroids.
The dual asteroid which went completely unnoticed by professional scientists unit now, joins the ranks of fewer than 100 eclipsing binary asteroids located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The dual asteroids, collectively known as 3905 Doppler when first discovered in 1984 was given little attention to in the following decades.

The students picked the asteroid for study as they were easy to see in the autumn sky and not much was known about them.
In October 2013 the students observed and photographed the 3905 Doppler using a telescope in Spain, which was controlled remotely over the Internet. The purpose of the study was to capture changes in the brightness of each asteroid’s reflected light. Measuring an asteroid`s light over a period of time allows astronomers to determine how long it takes the asteroid to rotate.

The photographs were then used to create a light curve or graph showing the brightness of a space object over time. On observing the data, the team realised that at one point in the curve, the asteroid almost emitted no light at all.

The class suspected that 3905 Doppler was actually two asteroids orbiting one another and so compared the notes with Lorenzo Franco, an amateur astronomer in Italy who was also studying 3905 Doppler around the same time. The data corroborated the class`s findings.

The discovery was presented at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor on January 7.

First Published: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 - 17:27

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