Minor Planet Close Approach Reports

Readers of this page will notice recent postings on close approaches of new minor planets.  We expect to produce these reports automatically for each object passing closer than 1 lunar distance from the center of the Earth.  These informational messages will eventually contain a bit more information on each object, including physical characteristics, where available.  The main purpose of these messages will be to note that close approaches of this nature are commonplace.  Further, providing some scale (the size of the Moon’s orbit) for reference may assist readers in picturing the range and geometry of each approach.  As the search capacity of the IAWN improves, we expect more objects to be found and reported on this page.  Keeping track of these close approaches is one way to view, in real time, the improving efficiency of the worldwide search network.

Tenagra Observatories–An IAWN observing station in Arizona

DSC_7110 (The view of Tenagra from the southwest)

Tenagra Observatories (Minor Planet Center observatory code 926) has been involved in providing NEO follow-up observations for the last several years. The owner, Michael Scwhartz, has graciously answered some questions and provided us some photos to allow readers to get a glimpse into an amateur-turned-professional observing station that is now a main contributor to NEO follow-up.

Tim Spahr (TS): How did you get interested in astronomy?

Michael Schwartz (MS): I fell deeply in love (with astronomy) when playing in the school yard and the sun went down. A man had set up a telescope and asked me if I wanted to have a look. Amateurs love to share and that is one of the endearing things about them. I walked over and looked into the eyepiece. I saw Saturn. For whatever reason my mind could only think/feel “Perfect and beautiful. Beautiful and perfect.” Not only was I hooked but the hook was set deeply. I was never the same.

(TS editorial notes– MS remained interested in astronomy through high scool and…)

MS: …off to the university to become an astronomer. Life always (not sometimes) throws you a curve ball that you can’t hit. I came out with a degree in archeology. Then a degree in physics after some wild world travels. Then to graduate school in human paleontology. Then marriage, a family, started a software company, built it up for 17 years and sold it. I was 47. The year was 1997. I had some extra pocket change. Then I saw these ads for a strange and wonderful device called a “CCD camera”. I bought a Celestron 11 on a Losmandy mount and SBIG’s brand new ST6. I hauled it out into the back yard and imaged the Horse Head Nebula in 60 seconds. I think I wept. After a while I was thinking more and more about what this amazing device could do. I was living in Oregon and moved out into the country. I build a backyard roll-off roof and put in the first Bisque Paramount, the amazing little AP7 (the first camera with a back illuminated chip) and a used Celestron 14. I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Be one of the first amateurs to find extragalactic supernovae. Everyone said it couldn’t done so this spurred me on even more.

(TS editorial notes– after a bunch of research into automation…)

MS… I hit paydirt with (the discovery) of supernova 1997cx in NGC 3057!

(TS editorial notes– MS eventually discovered lots of supernovae, which when used as ‘standard candles’ to determine distances to galxies, helped astronomers determine the expansion of the universe. This resulted in the 2011 Nobel prize in physics to Drs Perlmutter, Schmidt, and Riess …)

TS: It seems a large shift in goals from supernovae to NEOs. How did you end up changing your interest to NEOs?

Big Blue (closeup of one of Tenagra’s telscopes)

MS: My bug for discovery got even stronger. Throw in some automation and the telescope was becoming a hell of a great tool. Now, where else could this be applicable? Asteroids and comet discoveries! In 2010 I added a second telescope, an 16″ f/3.75 corrected Newtonian (now named “Pearl”). This small but mighty telescope has a field of view of 1.35 X 1.35 degrees. The software arsenal was beefed up with a real-time object movement detection system and this telescope was pre-programmed to search different parts of the sky every night. Yes, I had stiff competition by large, professional telescopes whose job it was to discover NEOs. Ways to work in between their legs and second guess where they would be looking was a job to be reckoned with. One way was to use a program that could hunt close to the galactic plane where there were so many stars that they would overload the detection algorithms used by these major search installations. The other way was to add image subtraction so the auto detected moving bodies could be more easily found with the background star trails eliminated as much as possible. Many ordinary main belt asteroids were discovered. The total discovered NEOs was about 17. Plus 11 comets. One of them named “Tenagra-Tombaugh” because it was first noted by Clyde Tombaugh in his search for Pluto under the direction of Percival Lowell at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

TS:You “transitioned” from amateur to professional. At what point did you think that you’d be able to run the operation professionally? (NB, in english, amateur in this context simply means ‘unpaid’; we often refer to amateur astronomers as ‘unpaid enthusiasts’ or ‘unpaid experts’)

Mission control (a view of the control room at Tenagra)

MS: Although discovering NEOs and comets was fun I would always be beat out by the big boys. So how could I contribute to this effort? What was needed in this quest that generally wasn’t being done by the professional NEO surveys? The answer was “intelligent triage” of NEOs to follow and locating lost NEOs that are coming around towards the earth for the second time. What is “intelligent triage”? The major survey telescopes, located in S. Arizona and Hawaii were making more discoveries every night. These were posted on the Minor Planet Center NEOCP page real-time as they occurred. Each discovery is given a NEO score based upon some algorithm that would say whether it was really a NEO or not. Many so-called discoveries were not. How can you tell if you have a handful of observations? There’s not enough data to properly determine a locked-in orbit. It was almost always possible to tell if the NEO would hit or miss the earth but with a very inaccurate orbit said nothing about what they might do when they come around towards the earth again in a few years or less. So I finally bit the bullet and made a proposal to NASA: “Intelligent Triage, Batch Processing Efficiency and Discovery of 2nd Apparition NEOs”. (TS Note–the proposal was fully funded by NASA and Michael immediately became an IAWN member at this point, as all NASA-funded NEO observing entities are covered under their signature on the Statement of Intent)

TS: What is the hardest part of the work?

MS: The most difficult part of my work is now that I have expanded I have to “manage” a staff of sorts. But I have successfully done that with my 17 year software business so if I have chosen my employees wisely then things should be okay.

TS: What is your favorite part of your work?

MS: I have two important favorite parts of my work: (a) I love the challenge of making things come together, from personnel to equipment. And (b), that I exceed the expectations of NASA and other NEO researchers with the output of work that I have predicted. That I make a genuine contribution to science.

TS: Do you have anything you’d like to share with readers and other potential or future IAWN team members?

MS: Have heroes, live your dreams and leave no stone unturned. When you feel like quitting give yourself a good talking to and remind yourself of the powerful personal forces inside of you that caused you to take this path. Never be afraid to ask questions if you can’t find the answer somewhere else! Being shy is not healthy. Be competative but mostly with yourself. You can get lost trying to beat the other guy. Finally, take a walk out of the control room every now and then and have a look at the sky. Take your binoculars if you wish. Stay connected with the cosmos on both levels: emotionally and scientifically.

Foster your “can do” attitude and let your “can’t do” aspect fade to black. It is impossible to know who will develop these distinct ways of approaching things in any of life’s endeavors. But if you you find that in general life has gifted you with a “can do” attitude then feed and nourish it well. If a “can’t do” part starts to assert itself you must learn to give it a gentle speech and invite it to go away. Be gentle with it and recognize it for what it is: An sudden realization of inadequacy that makes you feel as though you can’t take the next step.

In general this means giving yourself a pep talk. Try to be positive and count your successes and failures. Own them all. They are yours. They are not the fault of other people or situations. When you own them they don’t own you.

Latest Picture Michael
(Michael at home, between observing sessions)

IAWN & SMPAG Open Forum

DSC_0267 (1)

(image credit UN OOSA)


On February 18, 2016 IAWN and SMPAG held an Open Forum associated with the 53rd session of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Science and Technical Subcommittee. The primary purpose of the forum was to provide the community with information on current and worldwide NEO efforts, and also to help stimulate interest to allow for broader, worldwide support for detecting, tracking, warning and mitigating a possible future NEO impact.

Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, began with some background, as well as introductions.

The first speaker was Rob Landis also from NASA’s PDCO, who provided some history of the formation of IAWN, the charter, and current status of some of the programs.  His presentation is here.

Tim Spahr, a specialist in groundbased observing and orbit computation, presented slides on current worldwide survey efforts, and some discussion of the orbit computation process.  His presentation listed some areas in which worldwide observers might contribute to IAWN.  This presentation is here.

Detlef Koschny of the European Space Agency presented the status of several efforts underway.  These include initial construction of a 1-m ‘fly-eye’ telescope capable of surveying the entire sky every few nights and an update the NEODyS-2 program which computes orbits and impact probabilities for all NEOs.  ESA is also interfacing with local agencies in disaster preparedness in the unlikely event of an impact in the area.  Detlef’s full presentation is located here.

Linda Billings, from the National Institute of Aerospace and currently a consultant with NASA’s PDCO presented and discussed communication efforts, as well as challenges, surrounding NEOs and potential impacts.   Linda stressed clear and precise communication, and using existing well-functioning communication models currently in place for other areas such as the World Health Organization’s outbreak communication guidelines.  Her entire presentation is here.

Claus Madsen of the European Southern Observatory presented on ESO’s ability to observe very faint asteroids with the large telescopes at their disposal.  In the presentation here , Claus shows some of the images of faint NEO recoveries and also lists the number of objects where ESO observations have removed any possibility of future impact.

Gerhard Drolshagen, also of ESA, presented a discussion of  Space Mission Planning Advisory Group functions and listed the current entities with membership in the Group.   Gerhard also presented on several space missions, some operating and some in planning stages, that will help our current understanding of science and technology requirements for future asteroid deflection.


2015 a record year for NEO discovery

2015 ended with the highest NEO yearly discovery total (1560) in history!  Congratulations to all the discovery and follow-up teams on this accomplishment.

The IAU’s Minor Planet Center maintains this page (updated daily) that tracks the number of discoveries by individual surveys.   A quick glance shows most discoveries, as been the norm for the past decade, are made by a few of the large NASA-funded surveys.  (for graphical information on historical discovery rates and a deeper dive into the subject, look here.)

Below is a snapshot of the MPC’s ‘yearly breakdown’ page, as well as a bar chart showing the same information:


Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 6.54.13 AM
The MPC’s Yearly Breakdown of NEO discoveries for 2015

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On the lefthand side of the table is the MPC-assigned  observatory code.  Observatory codes give the precise latitude, longitude, and elevation for each telescope location; this information is necessary for precise orbital calculations.  The main discovery stations are as follows:  Pan-STARRS (F51)Catalina Sky Survey (703); NEOWISE (C51); Mount Lemmon Survey (G96); LINEAR/Space Surveillance Telescope (G45) and lastly DECam NEO Survey (W84).

In order to compute precise orbits for minor planets, positional measurements (called astrometry) are required in the days, weeks and months post-discovery.  This astrometric follow-up is just as important as the discovery observations.  Without these, most new NEOs would be lost or have arcs too short to compute the orbits well enough to evaluate the possibility of impacts with the Earth in the future.  Thankfully there is a dedicated group of follow-up astrometrists–many of them from the amateur observing community–to provide critical data.  Below are several key follow-up stations around the globe; for a full listing of others check the MPC’s follow-up statistics page here.

H21 & 807–Astronomical Research Institute.  Operated by Robert Holmes, this used to be an amateur organization and is now funded by NASA.  The team uses telescopes in northern Illinois and also Chile.

291–Spacewatch.  Operated by Robert McMillan and team at the University of Arizona.  Spacewatch was the pioneer in digital discovery and astrometry of minor planets in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The 1.8-meter follow-up telescope is now among the world’s best at observing faint NEO targets.

926–Tenagra Observatories.  Operated by Michael Schwartz and Paolo Holvorcem.  Another amateur-turned-professional follow-up team that is now funded by NASA.  The telescopes are operated from Patagonia, Arizona.


Scanning further down this list shows many observatories scattered around the globe making useful contributions to follow-up, including two teams in Italy (160 Castlemartini and 204 Schiaparelli);  one in Arkansas in the US (H45, Arkansas Sky);  England (J95, Great Shefford).  Please note that many of the professional survey teams provide a large volume of follow-up observations as well.

A future posting will provide more detail on the work of these follow-up stations, with an eye on how others might join in contributing to worldwide astrometric follow-up efforts.


Statement of Intent

The IAWN Steering Committee invites nations, space agencies, institutions, and organizations to lend their respective capabilities (e.g., survey telescope operations; follow-up observations; orbit computation; hazard analysis; data distribution, processing, and/or archiving, as well as other analyses and infrastructure contributions) to participate in the IAWN. As a condition of this participation, partners shall accept the existing set of coordination roles amongst the various existing NEO network facilities and agree to a policy of free and open communication.

To date, the United States and the Italian Near-Earth Objects Dynamic Site (NEODyS) have indicated their respective roles and capabilities to the IAWN.

The statement of intent document can be found here.

Capabilities of signatories