The Evening of the 27th October proves both different and exciting.
Earlier in the week Richard Miles, Director, Asteroids and Remote Planets Section of the BAA sent out a bulletin stating “2003 UV11, a relatively large near-Earth asteroid measuring roughly 400-500 meters across, is currently making a close approach over the next few days. In so doing it will become one of the brightest such objects for several years attaining a V magnitude of about 11.9 on October 29 and passing closest to the Earth at a range of 5.0 lunar-distances”
I had looked at this and was mildly interested, in the near past I had picked out large bright asteroids such as Vesta etc and historically at the University of Hertfordshire observatory I had undertaken a project to photograph a fainter asteroid so that it showed up as a trail, which was the extent of my experience in this field!
My good and very dedicated astronomer friend Andrew Robertson had also received and read the bulletin, clearly it excited him and he soon sent me a follow up message on the matter. We discussed practicality, weather patterns and tactics and decided to give it a go.
Now Andrew has the capability to download the asteroids ephemeris onto his laptop and use that to send his accurate mount to the exact spot where UV11 is at anytime. I don’t have that capability. What I do have are bright friends ;¬), one of whom is working away this week, Simon Kidd, so he could join in, but Es Reid showed interest and wanted in!
Now with Es, a boffin of the first order a visit to the observatory, and these aren’t infrequent will involve feeding him. This occasion was no different but then he did bring a nice Haggis from the Isle of Lewis along with him. Having enjoyed this treat along with home grown potatoes & carrots (yep I do have other hobbies apart from astronomy), we moved out to the observatory at about 8pm local time. The sky had been strikingly clear and transparent but true to form as we opened up cloud started to build no doubt attracted to the 20” mirror!
We loaded the Watec 120N+ video camera into the focuser of the 20” and sent the mount to Jupiter with a view to synchronising mount and software prior to a star hop to Aries and the speeding stone!
Well 30 minutes of now you see me now you don’t with Jupiter saw us retire to the office and plan out the route of the asteroid. Using Richard’s ephemeris for midnight on 26th and 27th we plotted a path on my Sky Atlas 2000 in white china marker, we then estimated with some reasonable degree of precision the likely whereabouts of the flying stone at that precise moment. Comfortable that we were getting somewhere with this project a look outside revealed two things (a) that it had rained, lightly and (b) that it was now clearing!
It was now that a text came through from Andrew in darkest Norfolk telling us that he had found the asteroid and was tracking it in his Dall Kirkham Tak Mewlon visually.
The pressure had just been turned up, we managed to hop our way from southerly Jupiter to Gamma Aries in the NW, a mag 4.52 rather nice double star that was to be our launch pad to UV11 (sounds like sun screen doesn’t it? J)
It was around then that two disasters struck! In no particular order, my young son Aubrey came out in his pyjamas to wish us good night, in the dark and wearing his Mothers boots, he tripped on the gravel path and fell headlong into various buckets of rain water by the greenhouse! The observatory door opened accompanied by a sobbing, soaking, grazed and filthy little boy! Dad had to leave the obsy and take him indoors for comfort and cleaning.
The second disaster was due to a wiring fault as yet not determined, that saw the Watec camera pack up completely!
I returned to the observatory duties having been handed over to Aubrey’s Mum and swapped the camera with an older model Watec that thankfully worked.
We were soon starring intently at a monitor displaying a 11.9’ x 11.9’ fov of view which we had identified as the likely location for the speeding rock. Also contained in the fov where a pair of very nice galaxies, one large NGC772 and one small NGC770 mags 10.3 & 13 respectively, 772 showed wonderful structure and my fingers twitched in sketching anticipation, no time alas.
The phone rang; it was Andrew, had we got it? No we hadn’t but we had the galaxies was it close? “Oh I watched it pass them an hour ago” came back the response.
Andrew gave us the RA & DEC coordinates from his handset; we used those to close in on ‘Rocky’ but what transpired later that happened was every time we used his coordinates by the time we got there Rocky had just left..grrrrrr.
We took a break after what must have been an hour of hopping from ‘it must be there spot’ to the next and staring at the screen trying to detect movement, Es took the right half of the screen, I took the left, there was plenty of false alarms I can assure you!
We decided to go for a visual approach, embracing a wider fov. Out in the observatory the Moon now shone brightly and the sky was less than transparent. Using a 22mm Nagler that gave a 86x 0.6 degree fov. Once again the hunt resumed, the sky was far from dark with the moon glow and scatter but familiar objects such as the aforementioned galaxy duo and 2 particular stars mag 8.8 TYC 1210-290 and a pretty double Sturve 189 were soon recognised. Both Es & I studied the field, I thought I saw a mover but Es couldn’t see it, I then concluded it was wishful thinking!
Another call came in from Andrew asking if we had it? He talked me through the position in relation to Surve 189, this later turned out to be a deciding factor.
Es and I were both for giving up at this point; we had spent 3 hours plus in a fruitless chase. I came down from the eyepiece, and then changed my mind! I couldn’t take the ribbing from ultra competitive Andrew if we failed. One last go I said taking out the eyepiece and putting back in the camera.
Back into the warm office we studied the monitor negotiated the star field now familiar from the visual observation we stopped close to a 4 star asterism, then one moved! Bingo we had it J
We centred the asteroid, sent a message of victory to Norfolk and then spent the next 30 minutes watching this tiny star move across the monitor at around 2cm per minute, it was riveting. We tried to take a video to show movement using the capture software on the laptop, unfamiliar with this process I failed but managed a dozen or so single frames which I’m hoping at the time of writing Simon Kidd might be able to stitch together to form something of interest. Es in the mean time stole blue tack from behind picture decorating the observatory walls, rolled it into balls and periodically stuck them onto the monitor screen to mark the progress of the asteroid! Who said we aren’t scientists? J
It was just about midnight when we closed up and Es left for home, having come so close to giving up I think we all, including distant Andrew were delighted that we had given it one last go!