Rare Binary Asteroid Discovered By University of Maryland Students (And They're Not Even Astronomy Majors)

By Josh Lieberman on January 7, 2014 5:33 PM EST

asteroid binary
University of Maryland students have discovered a rare binary asteroid, 3905 Doppler. Above, an artist's rendering of the binary asteroid. (Photo: Loretta Kuo)

A class of University of Maryland undergrads has discovered an astronomical rarity: a pair of asteroids which orbit and eclipse one another. The binary asteroid, which has gone unnoticed by "real" astronomers until now, joins the ranks of fewer than 100 eclipsing binary asteroids located between Mars and Jupiter in the main asteroid belt. The find is all the more unique because the students aren't even astronomy majors (though perhaps some of them will now switch over).  

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"This is a fantastic discovery," said Drake Deming, a University of Maryland astronomer who wasn't involved in the discovery. "It provides an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the physical properties and orbital evolution of these objects."

The binary asteroids, known as 3905 Doppler, were first discovered in 1984. The class happened to pick 3905 Doppler for study, mainly because they are easy to see in the sky and because not much is known about them.

Over the course of four nights in October 2013, students observed and photographed the 3905 Doppler using a telescope in Spain, which the students controlled online. The photographs were to be used to create a lightcurve, which is a graph showing the brightness of a space object over time. (Objects like stars and asteroids vary in brightness, while the light of planets remains consistent.) Measuring an asteroid's light over a period of time allows astronomers to determine how long it takes the asteroid to rotate. 

"When we looked at the [3905 Doppler] images we didn't realize we had anything special, because the brightness difference is not something you can see with your eyes," said Melissa Hayes-Gehrke, the class's instructor. 

But when the class inputted the data into a computer to create the lightcurve, they realized something weird was going on: at one point in the curve, the asteroid almost emitted no light at all. "It was incredibly frustrating," said Alec Bartek, a senior physics major. "For some reason our lightcurve didn't look right."

Hayes-Gehrke suspected that one asteroid was blocking the other, causing near-darkness in part of the lightcurve. The class compared notes with Lorenzo Franco, an amateur astronomer in Italy who was also studying 3905 Doppler, and his data corroborated the class's findings.    

"Even then I was not fully aware of how special the discovery was," said sophomore economics major Brady Bent. "As we continued to analyze our data, other professors in the Astronomy Department came over to view our work. At this point I understood just how rare our find was."

The students' discovery was presented today at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor, Md., and it will be published in April in the Minor Planet Bulletin.

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