Asteroid Discovery From 1980 - 2010
August 26, 2010 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Asteroid Discovery From 1980 - 2010: an animation of the solar system that highlights asteroids as they are discovered. I would suggest watching it in a high resolution.
posted by brundlefly (26 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Nice find.

I assume that the lumpiness of the new additions, the way the white spots flash on and off, is due to some publication schedule, probably a new journal edition coming out. Neat to see the new telescope/measuring technique turn on at the very end.
posted by bonehead at 1:26 PM on August 26, 2010

Wow, that's hypnotic. Those red guys are brutal, where's the fire button? (spacebar pauses)
posted by sidereal at 1:30 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like how from 1980 - 1990ish the discoveries were small clusters in the Asteroid Belt as the earth went around the sun, and in 2000 you wonder how we are still alive.

By 2010 they are discovering from both ends across the solar system like a lighthouse.
posted by wcfields at 1:52 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd love to learn more about the technology they are using for this stuff. It's clear there are quantum leaps in our capacity for discovering new asteroids -- particularly in the past year or so. I guess it's just telescopes, but I wonder if they are doing some kind of automated searching now.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:04 PM on August 26, 2010

I guess it's just telescopes, but I wonder if they are doing some kind of automated searching now.

I'm sure a lot of it is just using computers to scan massive sets of images and track objects that are moving against the stars (which remain mostly fixed)
posted by delmoi at 2:06 PM on August 26, 2010

I was wondering about the lumpiness of additions too. You can tell that (until 2010) they're almost all discovered at solar opposition, then someone starts doing dawn/dusk observations(?). Is the lumpiness due to publication schedules? Availability of telescope time (lots of discoveries near April/May in early years)? Availability of funding? Clear skies?

JPL has a chart of discoveries by time and program. Looks like LINEAR and the Catalina Sky Survey are the big contributors.
posted by hattifattener at 2:07 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

From a friend:

Note that for most of the video new discoveries are made when objects are opposite the Sun from the Earth (and thus brightest), and the persistent slow discovery period at "the bottom", which is northern summer when a combination of the placement of the Milky Way and southwest USA weather patterns make discovery difficult. The change in discovery pattern in 2010 is due to the contributions of the WISE satellite, which observes at an angle from the Sun/Earth line.
posted by lukemeister at 2:08 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh man we are so doomed.
posted by Justin Case at 2:08 PM on August 26, 2010

I assume the big flashes early on are things like pioneer and galileo?

Oh, and big props to whoever is funding this; I'll pass on the K-T level extinction events, thanks.
posted by leotrotsky at 2:09 PM on August 26, 2010

I'm torn between going "cool! look at the pretty lights" and going "oh crap! that looks like a gigantic toilet bowl to hell!"

Then I remember that this can't be a to-scale representation.

Our solar system is so cool! and it boggles.
posted by Severian at 2:12 PM on August 26, 2010


I don't know which surveys discovered most of the asteroids early on, but they would have been ground-based, not Pioneer, Voyager, or Galileo.
posted by lukemeister at 2:14 PM on August 26, 2010

One thing that puzzled me, there are sometimes groups of distant asteroids that flash on, then disappear. It's not just that the points flash bright at discovery and then dim, these dim out completely. Other asteroids are still lit even at those distances. What happened? Did they just get one sighting and lose track? It's a shame that the top and bottom are cut off, there would probably be more information visible about distant asteroids appearing in those zones.

I'm also puzzled by the colors. Of course the asteroids flash white at discovery. Most of the asteroid belt is green. The innermost are red, with a band of yellow inside earth's orbit, but red and yellow seem intermixed. I thought that red might mean approaching the sun and yellow moving away, but you can follow individual asteroids and see this isn't the case. And there are plenty of white dots randomly distributed, many are easily visible at long distances.Any guesses on what the colors mean?

Now only one thing remains to be done with this data set: do a similar animation in 3D. I'd like to see if these asteroids are mostly aligned along the ecliptic.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:21 PM on August 26, 2010

Yeah, it does look like there is a lot of stuff floating around out there. Last I heard like 90% of the mass of the asteroid belt was held up in Ceres, so that must mean that most of these objects are pretty tiny and actually pretty far apart.
posted by cirrostratus at 2:23 PM on August 26, 2010

Informative note from the creator of the video that was posted on the Slashdot comment thread:
I hadn't quite finished this, I wanted to record a voiceover, but a friend submitted it before I was ready.

So essentially the video shows asteroids which are known, so in the early portions around 1980 we have less than 10,000 and by the start of this month we have over half a million. Asteroids are highlighted on discovery and within a second they fade to the colour appropriate to their orbit (Green, Yellow and Red), asteroids are usually observed intensely around discovery and once an orbit is determined observers can go back and follow up to refine the exact elements, I only show the discovery, not follow up measurements. This does mean that a number of the objects that are being plotted have orbits that may be so poorly determined that they are 'lost in space' because they were only observed for a short time and by the time people attempted to follow up they were lost.

At the start of the videos, the 1980's, CCD's weren't used for astronomy, photographic plates were the primary technology for imaging the sky, furthermore, there were no digital systems for identifying asteroids on these plates, so while many asteroids were no doubt imaged they were generally not of interest to the observers who were probably taking nice pictures of nebula or other photogenic phenomena. Many of the discoveries in the 1980's were still made visually by minor planet hunters who knew what they were looking for. One of the earliest 'bursts' in the video is most likely related to observations of Jupiter searching for new moons around the giant planet, they'd look for objects moving on the plates and then make an orbit determination to see if it was a moon, it's waaaaay cooler to find a moon since they're a rarer commodity, but if you merely find an asteroid at least you get a chance to name it.

By the time we get to the mid 1990's we start to see automated sky search programmes like LINEAR, LONEOS, Spacewatch and the Catalina Sky Survey and these are primarily searching for asteroids in opposition since they're closer to Earth and at peak brightness so you can see a discovery cluster radiating out from the Earth.

In the last 8 months you see WISE which is a satellite performing a full sky survey in the Infrared, its scans the sky at 90 degrees to the sun, so its discovery pattern is very distinctive.
posted by flug at 2:27 PM on August 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Makes me wonder if we were looking at the solar system from "above", if we'd see a ring like we do around Saturn.
posted by not_on_display at 2:44 PM on August 26, 2010

All the objects are VERY small compared to the scale of the Solar System and don't reflect enough light. You wouldn't see a ring, any more than you see the space debris raining to Earth on a daily basis.
posted by BYiro at 2:55 PM on August 26, 2010

Very cool. Thanks for posting.
posted by joedan at 3:15 PM on August 26, 2010

not_on_display: Makes me wonder if we were looking at the solar system from "above", if we'd see a ring like we do around Saturn.

As others have pointed out there's no visible cloud made up of asteroids, but the cloud of dust left over from the formation of the solar system — the zodiacal light — is visible to the naked eye if you have dark skies!
posted by nfg at 4:07 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's scary seeing ones that seem to track Earth for an orbit or so. This is why we can't have nice dinosaurs.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:19 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Us cause a buzz when the nickel bags are dealt
Him that's my man with the asteroid belt
posted by bwg at 6:30 PM on August 26, 2010

to survive a direct asteroid hit, we (the human race) better run and hide faster than the dinosaurs did millions of years ago. I always wanted to visit
Carlsbad Caverns, and now have a good reason to make a beeline down
posted by tustinrick at 6:51 PM on August 26, 2010

That's just the sort of thing that floats my boat. Thanks.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:24 PM on August 26, 2010

Fortunately the average 'new find' is getting smaller and smaller as time goes by, I'd wager. And Jupiter is a great catcher.

Best of all, they've all been there throughout recorded history. Figure the odds accordingly.
posted by Twang at 7:51 PM on August 26, 2010

My God...its full of rocks.
posted by samsara at 7:09 AM on August 27, 2010

Note that for most of the video new discoveries are made when objects are opposite the Sun from the Earth (and thus brightest)...

As someone on slashdot pointed out, the proper astronomical term for this alignment of celestial bodies is called "night".
posted by euphorb at 8:35 AM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's quite a bit more precise than that, euphorb; at solar opposition, the objects would be directly overhead at midnight, or 45° off the meridian at 9pm/3am, or etc. "Observable at night" covers a much broader swath of the solar system.
posted by hattifattener at 1:29 AM on August 28, 2010

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