IIT Bombay students help discover the closest asteroid that can fly on Earth
MUMBAI: Three days after starting a research project, Kritti Sharma, a third-year mechanical engineering student at IIT-Bombay, has already made history with her colleague Kunal Deshmukh, a senior student in the metallurgy and materials science department. Deshmukh and Sharma discovered the closest known asteroid that flies on Earth without affecting the planet. The SUV-sized asteroid named 2020 QG covered 2,950 km above the earth’s surface on Sunday. The previous record was held by the 2011 CQ1 asteroid, discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey in 2011 and located around 5,500 above the surface of the earth.

On Sunday afternoon, the duo were analyzing data from the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), California, when they reported five “streaks” in the data as potential asteroids. “The data looked like any other near-earth asteroids we’ve seen so far,” said Deshmukh, who is originally from Pune. “We were sure these were asteroids, but we had no idea that this would be recorded in history!” said Sharma, overjoyed to discover the asteroid so early in her research project. “I’ve always been passionate about astronomy, especially observational astronomy. This is the main reason I took this project out on credit,” said Sharma of Panchkula, Haryana. The ZTF team reported their results to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union and later confirmed them. The students are part of a larger collaborative project with Caltech. Chen-Yen Hsu from National Central University in Taiwan was also the designated scanner on Sunday.

“While Kunal has been working on the project for some time, Kritti came to us this semester. She received the background education before joining the project, ”Professor Varun Bhalerao told her, adding that both students came from different backgrounds. The team is looking forward to the next phase of examining these objects with the GROWTH-India robotic telescope in Hanle, Ladakh.

The asteroid wasn’t big enough to cause damage to Earth as it was about the size of an SUV. ZTF co-investigator Tom Prince, a senior scientist, said in a media statement that the asteroid flew close enough to Earth that its gravity changed its orbit significantly.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other employees, the ZTF scans the entire northern sky every three nights in search of supernovae, erupting stars and other objects that otherwise change or move in the sky. ZTF team members search for near-Earth asteroids as part of a program funded by NASA. As these space rocks race across the sky, they leave streaks in the ZTF images. Each night, machine learning programs automatically sort around a lakh image looking for those streaks, then narrow down the best asteroid candidates for researchers to pursue. This results in around 1,000 images that team members and students sort through with their eyes every day.


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