A chunk of rock, hurtling through outer space between the planets of Mars and Jupiter, will always have a connection to UNT. That's because a physics graduate student has been credited with the discovery of the asteroid.
David McNeil discovered the asteroid in April. It's known officially as "2007 KH-16K" and can be seen within the constellation Leo in an asteroid belt near Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation.
"It's a fairly busy part of the sky," McNeil says. "There are seven known asteroids in that same area, and we were able to flag the one that we didn't know. This asteroid is an oblong, potato-shaped object that we can tell is tumbling, based on the way the light changes as it moves."
McNeil discovered the asteroid as part of the International Asteroid Search Campaign - an Internet-based asteroid search program for high schools and colleges. UNT has taken part in the program since it was founded in September 2006, says Ron DiIulio, director of the UNT astronomy lab program.
McNeil says he was able to identify the 2007 KH-16K by looking at three pictures captured by a telescope in Illinois.
"If you look at them in sequence and notice something moving, that means it is an asteroid," he says. "Then we compare the pictures to sky charts of known asteroids. We sent the information back to the folks who took the picture, and they in turn double-check it and report it to the international Minor Planet Center database at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory."
McNeil says even though the asteroid has been identified, there are still unanswered questions - such as how big it is and what is its composition.
"Determining the size and specific composition of the asteroid is hard, unless you have some sort of space probe to specifically get a close-up look at it. The best measure of it that we have is based on its brightness. It's four hundred thousand times dimmer than what the naked eye could see from Earth," McNeil says.
There is a possibility that UNT's Monroe Robotic Observatory in rural Cooke County, north of Denton, may join the International Asteroid Search Campaign as a location where pictures can be taken as part of the asteroid search.
UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108
Contact: Rafael McDonnell 940-565-4835