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Insignificant asteroid still something to ponder, Jesuit says

  • February 19, 2022

A rock nearly five billion kilometres from Earth circling the Sun in a long ellipse once every 300 years might not be breaking news, but Jesuit astronomer Fr. Richard Boyle believes it’s worth thinking about.

“It would matter a lot if some near-Earth asteroid were to be so near as to crash into Earth… If these TNOs (Trans Neptunian Objects) out in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune stay out there in their circular 300-year orbits, fine — little bearing on Earth’s social life,” Boyle told The Catholic Register in an email. “But some TNOs or comets or Centaur asteroids get perturbed out of circular (orbit) and maybe could (pass) near Earth. So I think it’s wiser and better to look out and discover any potential threats.”

Boyle discovered this particular Trans Neptunian Object in December using the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona. His images and data were then analyzed by Lithuanian astrophysicist Kazimieras Cernis of Vilnius University. The object is romantically named “2021 XD7.”

Finding a dark object five billion kilometres away flying through space in a weird orbit is not that difficult, Boyle claims.

“Spending some time observing for asteroids is rather easy to do,” said the Jesuit scientist. “All it takes is less than an hour for shooting in one direction, usually along the ecliptic plane.”

It helps to have a big, computer-driven telescope in the middle of the desert.

Boyle used the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope with its VATT4K camera, specially designed for photometric surveys and for faint objects. A series of six exposures of five minutes each are then digitally layered together to produce a “blink” image which will reveal whether or not anything is moving. (Of course everything is moving, but it’s all relative.)

TNO 2021 XD7 joins a class of sub-planets that includes Pluto, which had been the ninth planet in our solar system beginning in 1930 but was kicked out of the club in the 1990s — too small, with a weird orbit.

The Vatican’s Arizona telescope, also known as the Alice P. Lennon Telescope, was built during St. Pope John Paul II’s time in the 1990s, after light pollution from Rome had rendered the Castel Gandolfo observatory useless. It’s tied to the University of Arizona, which developed many of the technologies incorporated into the new telescope, which are now being incorporated in the the Giant Magellan Telescope under construction in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

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