Upgraded IAWN Capabilities–Telescopes & Web Sites

In the past several months, some significant upgrades in capability have taken place.  We will take this opportunity to present details on these upgrades here, as well as their effect.  These upgrades have allowed a large increase in discoveries of NEOs over the previous year.  With a couple further immediate upgrades in capability, we expect another surge in discoveries when we compute annual tallies in about a year.


Upgraded CCD detector for Mount Lemmon Survey telescope

The most important capability upgrade in 2016 was the installation of a monolithic 10K X 10K CCD for The Catalina Sky Survey’s Mount Lemmon (observatory code G96)  1.5m reflector.  This new detector allowed for approximately 5 times the area coverage as the previous camera, and the results were impressive.  G96 had more than a 100% increase in discoveries over the previous year.  This increase is almost entirely responsible for the 20% increase in discoveries from the previous year.

Upgraded CCD detector for Catalina Sky Survey telescope

In addition to the upgraded chip for G96, Catalina was also able to secure and install an identical 10K chip for the Catalina Sky Survey Schmidt telescope (observatory code 703).  After some tweaks, this system is now performing well and the resulting sky coverage is truly impressive.  703 can cover the entire observable sky from their site in ~ 3 nights of observing.


ATLAS telescope(s)

The ATLAS Project has installed and begun operation of a 0.5m telescope capable of covering the entire observable sky from their site in Hawaii every few nights.  Some adjustments to the optics are in progress that will allow for fainter limiting magnitudes; however the combination of this telescope with the CSS Schmidt will result in the entire observable northern hemisphere sky being observed every couple of clear nights.  ATLAS has also proposed for additional systems, and if successful they will also install one in the southern hemisphere.

Pending upgrade:  A new CCD camera for the Pan-STARRS 2 telescope.

The Pan-STARRS project  will also provide a major upgrade boost, commensurate with those described above.  A second 1.8-m telescope with a large field of view will begin operation shortly.  It is expected that the telescope’s capabilities will be very similar to the existing system (PS1) and thus should result in another surge in NEO discoveries, particularly at fainter limiting magnitudes than most other facilities.

Because of all of the upgrades described here, we hope for another major increase in NEO discoveries by year end.


New CNEOS web page

JPL’s Center for NEO Studies has completed a major overhaul of their web services and has completed initial release to the public.  Part of this upgrade is an application programming interface (API) service.  This system can be linked here. We encourage users to give this site a good look, and we also look forward to more good stuff from the folks at JPL in the near future.








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:


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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.