1,700 new asteroids found in old files

Astronomers have unearthed tracks of more than 1,700 new asteroids found by the Hubble Space Telescope, but hidden in its files for 20 years.

Artificial intelligence has helped scientists discover a total of 1,701 new asteroid trails that could unravel the secrets of how the Earth formed.

Experts from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Munich, Germany, the Autonomous University of Madrid and the Astronomical Institute of the Romanian Academy collaborated on the discovery.

In this Hubble sighting, taken on December 5, 2005, the Main Belt asteroid 2001 SE101 is assailing in front of the Crab Nebula. (NASA, ESA HST, Melina Thevenot/Zenger)

According to the MPE, about two-thirds of the newly discovered objects were previously unknown to the scientific community, as they were observed to be likely smaller than asteroids found in ground surveys.

Despite their size, however, the astronomers are confident that they can help them gain important clues about the early solar system and the formation of planets.

The scientists kicked off the project by launching the Hubble Asteroid Hunter, a civilian science project on the Zooniverse platform, hoping to visually identify asteroids with the Hubble Space Telescope archive data on International Asteroid Day, in June 2019.

MPE study leader Sandor Kruk told Zenger, “One astronomer’s trash can be another astronomer’s treasure. The amount of data in astronomical archives is growing exponentially and we wanted to tap into this amazing data.”

They identified more than 37,000 composite images taken by the ACS and WFC3 cameras onboard the Hubble Space Telescope between April 30, 2002 and March 14, 2021, in which they believed the asteroid trails would initially appear as streaks.

However, Kruk explains: “Due to the orbit and motion of Hubble itself, the stripes appear curved in the images, which makes it difficult to classify asteroid trails — or rather, it’s hard to tell a computer how to automatically are detected.

Hubble asteroid distribution image
Spread in the sky of the new trails in the Hubble archive images: orange circles indicate the unidentified objects, blue stars the identified, known asteroids. The orbit of the ecliptic is marked as a red line in this projection.
MPE/Zenger

“So we needed volunteers to do an initial classification, which we then used to train a machine learning algorithm.”

After two million clicks on the Hubble Asteroid Hunter webpage, 11,482 volunteers and 1,488 positive ratings in about 1 percent of the images, the astronomers used them to train an automated machine learning algorithm on Google Cloud to search for additional traces. of asteroids in the remaining records.

This resulted in 900 new detections and a total of 2,487 possible asteroid tracks in the Hubble archive data, according to the institute.

Kruk, along with researchers Pablo Garcia Martin of the Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain and Marcel Popescu of the Astronomical Institute of the Romanian Academy, inspected the tracks and obtained a definitive dataset of 1,701 tracks discovered in 1,316 Hubble images.

Hubble asteroid trails
This mosaic consists of 16 different data sets from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope that were studied as part of the Asteroid Hunter citizen science project.
ESA, Hubble & NASA, S. Kruk ESA, ESTEC), Hubble Asteroid Hunter citizen science team, M. Zamani (ESA, Hubble/Zenger

The astronomers reported that, despite being systematically fainter and possibly smaller than typical asteroids, these objects have a similar velocity and distribution in the sky to known asteroids in the so-called main belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

MPE stated: “During the follow-up study, the astronomers will use the curved shapes of the paths imprinted by Hubble’s motion to determine the distance to the asteroids and study their orbits.”

Kruk said: “The asteroids are remnants of the formation of our solar system, which means we can learn more about the conditions in which our planets were born. But there were also other accidental finds in the archival images, which we are currently tracking at.

“Using such a combination of human and artificial intelligence to sift through massive amounts of data is a big change and we will be using these techniques for other upcoming studies as well, such as with the Euclid telescope.”

Rene Laureijs, Euclid’s project scientist and co-author of this study, added: “While it is designed to image galaxies, Euclid observes an estimated 150,000 objects in our solar system.”

The study was published in the international journal “Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A)” on May 6, 2022.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.

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