Radar views of Toutatis

The asteroid 4179 Toutatis turned out to be long and lumpy when Steven Ostro and colleagues got radar images of it during a flyby in December 1992. These views are spaced 6 hours apart.

Steve Ostro / Scott Hudson

At the June 1997 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Space Development Corp. founder and chairman James W. Benson announced the Benson Prize for the Amateur Discovery of Near-Earth Asteroids. The announcement came during a special session on amateur-professional cooperation.

A cash prize of U.S. $500 will be awarded for each of the next 10 discoveries of near-Earth asteroids by amateur skygazers, persons not employed as professional astronomers and who use amateur-owned equipment. For this prize, near-Earth asteroids are defined as rocky minor planets (as opposed to icy comets) whose distance from the Sun at perihelion, or closest approach, is less than 1 astronomical unit (AU). One AU, the average separation of the Earth and the Sun, is 149,597,870 kilometers, or 92,955,810 miles.

Roy Tucker of Tucson, Arizona, was the first amateur to take home $500 for finding a near-Earth asteroid. Tucker found minor planet 1997 MW1. He also won the prize in 1998 and 1999 for finding 1998 FG1 and 1998 HE3. Public-school teacher and amateur astronomer Leonard L. Amburgey of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, received the prize in 2000 for his discovery of Earth-approaching asteroid 2000 NM.

Near-Earth asteroid 4769 Castalia

This computer reconstruction of the near-Earth asteroid 4769 Castalia utilized radar echoes obtained in 1989, when the object was 5.7 million km from Earth. The asteroid's two lobes have mean diameters of 920 and 800 meters and suggest that the object is a 'contact binary' assembled from a gentle collision between two minor planets. Adapted from Hudson and Ostro, Science, 263.

© 1994 Amer. Assoc. for the Advancement of Science

To Seek Out Previously Unknown Near-Earth Asteroids

"The purpose of the Benson Prize," says its donor, "is to encourage backyard astronomers to seek out previously unknown near-Earth asteroids. Such objects are rich in ores and other resources that could be exploited without the environmental degradation caused by mining operations here on Earth. Harnessing natural resources from near-Earth asteroids," continues Benson, "will help open up the space frontier and lead to large numbers of people living and working in space."

"Not only that," adds Benson, "but near-Earth asteroids pose a grave threat to life on our home planet. Before we can hope to protect ourselves against a devastating collision, we need to find all such objects and determine their orbits accurately. Otherwise, we may meet the same fate as the dinosaurs, who were apparently wiped out by an asteroid impact some 65 million years ago." So far astronomers have found about 300 near-Earth asteroids; the total population of such objects at least 100 meters wide may exceed 135,000.

Asteroid tracks

Two asteroids discovered by Sky & Telescope's Dennis di Cicco are visible on this photograph. Three consecutive images of the sky were taken to reveal the motions of these two rocky bodies. When viewed directly through a telescope, an asteroid resembles a tiny star-like object. The asteroids are 1995 SL5 and DC013. Click on the image to see the complete field of view.

Many of today's astronomy hobbyists use large, high-quality telescopes and electronic cameras with extraordinarily sensitive charge-coupled device (CCD) detectors. This remarkably affordable off-the-shelf hardware, coupled with inexpensive yet very powerful software for processing digital images, makes the discovery of near-Earth asteroids by amateur astronomers possible.

The Benson Prize is sponsored by Space Development Corp., LLC, a company dedicated to the exploration of space for the purpose of finding usable natural resources. SpaceDev will be the sole judge of whether a discoverer and his or her discovery meet the spirit of the Benson Prize.

Jim Benson invites e-mail correspondence, including requests for more information about the Near-Earth Asteroid Prospector.

More Information About Near-Earth Asteroids

Asteroid Eros

This incredible picture of Eros, taken on February 14, 2000, shows the view looking from one end of the asteroid across the gouge on its underside toward the opposite end. In this mosaic, features as small as 120 feet (35 meters) across can be seen. House-sized boulders are present in several places; one lies on the edge of the giant crater separating the two ends of the asteroid.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Here are some links to additional information about near-Earth asteroids:

Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) Home Page

Spaceguard Foundation

Near-Earth Asteroid Information from the Minor Planet Electronic Circulars

Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Mission

Some suggestions for further reading:

Asteroids: A History, Curtis Peebles (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000). A good general overview of asteroid science.

Resources of Near-Earth Space, John L. Lewis, M. S. Matthews, and M. L. Guerrieri (University of Arizona Press, 1993). Technical papers about natural resources on the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids, with one chapter on searching for the latter.

Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets, John L. Lewis (Addison-Wesley, 1996). A popular general guide to the potential riches in space.

Cosmic Pinball, Carolyn Sumners & Carlton Allen (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 1999). The story of the science behind the "rocks" from space.


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