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Nick Moskovitz

In this file photo, Lowell Observatory Astronomer Nick Moskovitz stands next to a camera array at Lowell designed to track meteoroids as they plunge into Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists have counted more than three-quarters of a million asteroids in the solar system. Keeping track of them? That’s Nick Moskovitz’s job, at least in part.

An assistant astronomer at Lowell Observatory, Moskovitz is on a five-person team that helps maintain a giant database of the orbits of all 775,092 known asteroids. Too small to be called planets, these rocky bodies represent ancient, unaltered remnants from the solar system’s formation about 4.6 billion years ago. They orbit the sun, mostly in a giant asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The database of asteroid orbits has been around for about 20 years, Moskovitz said, but now thanks to funding from NASA his team is working to update it and beef it up with information about the objects’ physical characteristics like color, mass, shape, size and rotational period.

Hundreds of thousands of those types of measurements have already been made and are stored in other databases or archives, Moskovitz said.

The goal of the NASA project is to bring all of that into one place so researchers can better analyze it and make connections between different datasets.

Moskovitz gave the example of someone filtering the data to see how an asteroid’s albedo, a measure of reflectivity, correlates with its size or searching to see how many asteroids with a certain albedo were blasted off the surface of Vesta, among the largest bodies in the main asteroid belt.

“You can put in a query on a single object and it will tell you everything we know about that one object,” Moskovitz said of the project concept.

He said knowing the asteroids’ orbit path is a key part of the database so that once astronomers home in on objects most in need of new observations, they can track their travel path to see when and where they can be observed.

He also noted that because the much larger planets have, through gravitational push and pull, dictated where asteroids are located in the solar system, studying their current clustering and distribution helps provide clues about where the planets were and how they interacted with asteroids in the past.

Another aim of the database project is to create a public portal at asteroid.lowell.edu so both professional and amateur astronomers can submit their own asteroid observations and query the data.

There are about 8,000 professional astronomers in the world but there are 10 to 100 times more amateur astronomers, and this information repository can help facilitate communications between all those people, Moskovitz said.

In a broad sense, expanding our understanding of asteroids helps with piecing together the story of how the solar system got to its current state, Moskovitz said.

Along similar lines, one of his other projects is a full-horizon camera array that scans the skies for meteors blazing through the atmosphere. The cameras can be used to trace the meteor’s trajectory, either back to its possible origin in the solar system or downward to its landing spot on Earth’s surface. That, in turn, can help point researchers like him in the right direction for finding meteorites — larger meteoroids or smaller asteroids that make it down to Earth.

Studying those rocky objects can open up a window deep into history, Moskovitz said. Rocks on Earth could be 10 million years old while the youngest meteorite is more like 2 billion years old, he said.

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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