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Physics professor and student team analyze asteroids with NASA telescope

Julie Ziffer's Physics Students Dec 2017

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Physics professor and student team analyze asteroids with NASA telescope

by Heather Roberts, USM Public Affairs intern


USM's associate physics professor Julie Ziffer and her team of students controlled NASA's infrared telescope remotely at midnight from the Portland campus to analyze asteroids.

"The purpose of my research is to find water and organics on asteroids," said Ziffer. "We want to determine how common they are in the solar system."

"I think it's really exciting," said William Morse, physics major and the lead researcher on the project. "We can see exactly what's going on and the data coming back from the instrument in real time."

NASA's infrared telescope is in Hawaii where the staff at the University of Hawaii are helping Ziffer and her team remotely control the telescope.

"It's interesting to see the process that someone could use to get information," said Ben Montgomery, who is a computer science major and sets up the lab computer. "You can appreciate the cut and dried data you encounter elsewhere."

NASA assigned Ziffer and her team certain nights to use the telescope. During those nights, they control NASA's telescope from midnight to noon.

"A lot of this that was enjoyable was the aspect of seeing the discipline and the rigor that's involved in a process that can take place in the wee hours of the night," said Nick Maloney who majors in math and records the observations.

We cannot see infrared light, but an infrared telescope can detect that light. Certain minerals emit this infrared light as radiation. The telescope used by Ziffer's team detects infrared radiation coming from asteroids.

"We are able to see different mineral composition at different wavelengths," said Ziffer.

Ziffer thinks that some of the observed asteroids broke off from Bennu, a larger asteroid. NASA launched a spacecraft, Osiris Rex, a year ago to visit Bennu and take a sample of it.

"I've used space telescopes to observe this asteroid to try to find out about it and it has several characteristics," said Ziffer. "That asteroid that we're visiting in many ways is an unusual and rare asteroid."

NASA's observations suggest that Bennu has carbon, an element that is a greenhouse gas. Carbon could indicate organic material.

Discoveries from Ziffer and the student team might indicate biological matter on these asteroids.

"As you get to see the collection of data and see the results of your efforts," said Maloney. "You realize that the data is the basis of the knowledge we have."

The discovery of water on asteroids could possibly tell us how earth got its water.

For USM students, collaborating with the University of Hawaii and using the NASA telescope is a great opportunity to add to our scientific knowledge while enriching their education.

Learn more about USM's Physics Department.


Article by Heather Roberts, intern, USM Office of Public Affairs and student in Communications and Media Studies

Photo of USM students Ben Montgomery, Nicholas Maloney, and William Morse by William Morse.