A new "citizen science" effort aims to have amateur astronomers track down minor planets in support of NASA's forthcoming OSIRIS-REx mission.
Nowhere else in science is the partnership between professionals and amateurs closer than in astronomy — and that's especially true when it comes to observing asteroids. These days backyard observers worldwide routinely track them during stellar occultations, take follow-up images of close-approaching objects, and even compute precise orbits with use-at-home software.
As they ramp up for send their next spacecraft to an asteroid, NASA scientists have put out the call for observers to help categorize a particular class of primitive, carbon-rich objects that hold clues to much of the solar-system's history. The mission is called OSIRIS-REx, short for "Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer."
(You know, I'm not fond of these GOOFI acronyms, especially since this one completely obscures the mission's purpose: to rendezvous with a near-Earth carbonaceous asteroid known as (101955) 1999 RQ36, study it, and return at least a golf ball's worth of its surface to Earth.)
Anyway, the OSIRIS-REx team is looking for amateur astronomers to help them characterize up to 70 carbonaceous asteroids that pass near Earth. Since the spacecraft won't be launched until 2016 and return with a sample until 2023, there's lots of time to join and participate.
You can get the details by viewing these Target Asteroids FAQs. But basically you need a telescope with an aperture of at least 8 inches (20 cm), a CCD camera, and an Internet-connected computer (which you'll load with free imaging software). Alternately, you can reserve observing time at a remote-telescope farm such as Sierra Stars Observatory Network, LightBuckets, or iTelescope.
You'll download that night's coordinates for your target body and then take at least three images of it. From there you can either determine its exact position (astrometry), its exact brightness (photometry), or record its light at different wavelengths (spectroscopy).
To get started, fill out the Target Asteroids! registration form, clear out a little time on your observing calendar, and get ready to do some real science!