From asteroid to hero - the makings of a scientist

A South African scholar who sighted a new asteroid has become something of a
hero for young science boffins in the country.

Ernie Halberg, a 12th grade student in South Africa, and member of The
Astronomical Society of South Africa [ASSA] / Space School Africa, sighted a new
asteroid known as 2010 DC2 for the first time earlier this year in February.

It is not the discovery of the asteroid itself which has garnered attention,
it is that the discovery was made by a scholar in Africa.  Considering that
finding an asteroid is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, and that
it required many hours over several months of dedicated star-gazing, the feat
becomes particularly meaningful.

So how did he do it?  Inspired by his science teacher Adrian Meyer to
"find an asteroid", Ernie Halberg set off on a project on deep space
observation.

 

Ernie Halberg working on remote access telescopes, and teaching
other students.

Under the tutelage of veteran asteroid hunter and Canadian geophysicist
Andrew Lowe, who confirmed the sighting of asteroid 2010 DC2,  Ernie rented
time on a powerful telescope based remotely in New Mexico in the USA.  The
telescopes and astronomical resources are managed by a company called  Global Rent a Scope
(GRAS), a
global network of professional grade remote access telescopes, based in the USA
and Australia.

Via the internet and using a script, Ernie could direct one of the 10"
(0.25m) G4 telescope at GRAS  (known as GRAS004) to point to a specific
area and at a specific time. To search for asteroids, he downloaded the image files
collected and searched for any unknown moving object against the
fixed background of stars.

According to Lowe, Ernie noticed the reasonably bright unknown object while shooting a discovery field at a right
ascension of 10h46m00s and declination of +02d50'30" and a second field at
10h46m00s +02d10'30". He measured the coordinates of the
asteroid as it moved during 40 minutes. The find was also confirmed by the Minor Planet Center
in Cambridge, MA who designated the asteroid as
2010 DC2.

2010 DC2 is an asteroid of about 2 km in diameter, and at the time of
sighting was in the finest
view in the last 13 years. Before, the asteroid was fainter and in the far
northern part of the sky or the far southern part of the sky, where professional surveys were not looking.
2010 DC2 takes about 4.23 years to go around the sun, and is in the middle part
of the asteroid belt.

The orbit of 2010 DC2, showing the position of the asteroid and the
earth and the other inner planets on February 18, the day that Ernie
saw it for the first time. The sun and earth and asteroid are almost
in a straight line, which is the ideal position to see the asteroid
at its brightest. Since Ernie was using a 10" (0.25m) remote access
telescope in New Mexico, which is quite small, this is an important
consideration.

Accompanied by a flood of media attention,
Ernie's discovery has been hailed by scientists from the Astronomical Society of
Southern Africa ASSA as well as academics in universities.

With a future firmly in science, he has been selected as leader of the South African student delegation that
will attend the Africa Astronomy Festival in 2011. During the program Ernie will give lectures on deep space
observation and technical aspects of asteroid identification where remote access
telescopes are used. And in the process, it is hoped, inspiring a generation of
African astronomers and scientists.