There are now over 800,000 asteroids and comets that have been discovered orbiting our Sun, remnants of the planet formation process 4.5 billion years ago. Most of these objects are discovered using dedicated sky-surveys, including the most powerful telescope built for this purpose, Pan-STARRS 1. Based on Haleakala in Hawai'i, its 1.4 Gigapixel camera allows detection of up to 60,000 asteroids in a single month.
Pan-STARRS 1 has been surveying the Solar system in earnest since 2011, but only using up to 11% of the available time for this research. Even with this small fraction, it has discovered over 800 Near-Earth Objects, over 40 comets, and made over 7 million detections of asteroids in the main asteroid belt. In 2014 the time allocated to the Solar System survey will increase to near 100%, and towards the end of the year it will be joined by its sister facility, Pan-STARRS 2
QUB has been co-lead on the asteroid science key project with Pan-STARRS 1 since 2012 and we will have exclusive access to these data until 2015. We will also be partners in the new survey to be performed by Pan-STARRS 1 + 2.
The asteroid belt is collisionally dominated, with the results of these collisions being seen in the existence of asteroid families, and the rubble-pile nature of small asteroids. It was only in 2010 that the first probable collisional event was identified with the mysterious object P/2010 A2. Since then another 2 have been discovered. However the rate at which collisions take place between small asteroids, and the behavior of the resulting ejecta, is still very uncertain. As collisions are the dominant form of erosion in the asteroid-belt and Kuiper-belts today, it is important to discover many more and understand their nature.
The student will help lead a search for inter-asteroid collisions in the main asteroid belt. This will involve the building and monitoring of the real-time data stream from the telescope, to search for potential collisions. Suspicious objects will be followed-up using other ground-based facilities, such as ESO, ING and the SAFT 1-m on La Palma. Confirmed discoveries will be used to derive the true asteroid collision rate in the asteroid belt and thereby constrain the small asteroid population there.
This project would be performed in collaboration with Dr. Richard Wainscoat and/or Dr. Robert Jedicke of the Unversity of Hawai’i Institute of Astronomy. It is anticipated that a small amount of time may be spent working at the Institute, subject to funding availability.