Five college students combing through telescope images have found more than 1,300 previously undetected asteroids.
The newly discovered asteroids now make up about one in 250 known objects in the solar system, but none are known to be a threat to Earth—yet. Some asteroids have orbits close to Earth's, so they pose a collision danger. NASA and other organizations have been involved for several years now in efforts to find the bigger space rocks that could destroy the planet or a lot of its life.
"There's no immediate danger, but anything that crosses Earth's orbit could, in a hundred, a thousand, a million years, crash into us if we reach the same point at the same time," said Andrew Becker, an assistant professor in astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle who assisted the asteroid-hunting undergrads.
Becker said his students set out to find supernovae, or the remnants of exploding stars, but the asteroids blocked their view like a swarm of tiny flies.
"I kept asking the students what they had found and they kept saying, 'More asteroids. No supernovae, but lots of asteroids,'" Becker said.
University of Washington astronomy students Amy Rose, Amber Almy, Amanjot Singh, Kenza Sigrid Arraki and Kathryn Smith made the discoveries in 2005 and 2006. The 8.2-foot (2.5-meter) Sloan telescope at Apache Point, N.M., was used to collect the data that the students used, which they combed through with the help of computer software
The Minor Planet Center at Harvard University verified the astronomical finds and, if the students continue to collect data , each may get to name up to 260 asteroids.
"It's an amazing feeling - I feel like I'm jumping into research," said Rose, a junior at the University of Washington. "It's not just taking tests and going to class."
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, Japanese Monbukagakusho, Max Planck Society of Germany and Higher Education Funding Council for England.
- VIDEO: The Asteroid Paradox
- GALLERY: Asteroids Images
- All About Asteroids