The Kuiper belt contains more than 100,000 icy and rocky objects, subsets of a larger group of space entities called trans-Neptunian objects. They were formed approximately four and a half billion years ago.| Joseph Pack/Mustang News

Savannah Sperry
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The Research and Education Collaborative Occultation Network (RECON) doesn’t want to keep the mysteries of space all to itself.

The network enlists citizen scientists to measure objects from the Kuiper belt to better understand the universe through their data.

The Kuiper belt

The Kuiper belt is a region of space beyond Neptune that contains more than 100,000 icy and rocky objects, subsets of a larger group of space entities called trans-Neptunian objects. These Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) are 100 kilometers or larger and were formed alongside the Earth’s solar system approximately four and a half billion years ago.

Since the stretch of the Kuiper belt studied by RECON has remained primarily undisturbed since its formation, determining the characteristics of these KBOs gives the researchers a greater understanding of the processes that occurred when the solar system was first formed.

From Big Bang to RECON

RECON is the brainchild of Dr. Marc Buie, a planetary scientist and observational astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

Buie first had the idea to assemble RECON more than 10 years ago.

At the time, Buie had been leading a project responsible for more than half of the 2,000 recently discovered Kuiper belt objects, Buie’s collaborator and Cal Poly physics professor — currently on sabbatical — John Keller said in an email to Mustang News. Buie believed having a larger group of people by his side could help measure the KBOs more efficiently.

The focus of RECON is to measure a specific subset of KBOs called cold classical KBOs, which orbit the sun.

“The way we’re measuring the sizes of KBOs is by looking at the shadow the objects cast on Earth as they pass in front of a distant star, which is an event called an occultation,” Keller said. “The length of time the star light is blocked can be used along with the KBO’s velocity to determine its size.”

However, tracking and measuring these shadows has been difficult. One problem is the KBOs are hard to track because they are far from the sun’s light.

This is where the citizen scientists come in.

“This leads to large uncertainties in knowing exactly where their shadow paths will pass over the earth during an occultation,” Keller said. “A 2,000-km network of telescopes is needed to combat this — to guarantee that at least someone in the network will catch the object’s shadow.”

The dream team

Buie and Keller set up the teams by looking for regions in the nation with reasonable densities of schools interspersed every 50 km. The two settled on a route that took them along the Colorado River and up the back side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and Cascades in Washington.

“This path was chosen due to drier weather conditions in the rain shadow of these mountains,” Keller said. “Next, we used GoogleMaps to identify all of the high schools along this proposed transect.”

Emails were then sent out to principals and teachers at each high school.
Buie and Keller have been on four weeklong road trips this quarter, traveling to the prospective schools in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and Southern California, Keller said. Team members in these schools submit a Community Team Interest Form to help finalize which groups Buie and Keller will use for their research. These teams will be announced in a press release the week after Thanksgiving, Keller said.

The participants will be trained during two four-day workshops and provided with a telescope equipped with a recording system.

The plan is for all 50 teams of citizen scientists to focus their telescope on the same star where it is predicted a KBO will pass. They then record the star using the telescope’s recording system and upload their video files to a server maintained by Buie in Boulder, Colorado.

The teams located where the shadow passes over Earth will witness the occultation and will see the star go dark for an interval of seconds, then reappear after the object has passed.

While Buie and Keller lead the project, they are assisted by two student assistants and an office administrator. Physics senior Andrew Parker is one of those student assistants.

Parker also believes the project gets the community involved in real science while collecting important information about the solar system at the same time.

Keller had similar sentiments.

“As a citizen science effort, the project will be involving thousands of students, teachers and community members in pursuit of a cutting-edge research study,” Keller said. 

Even with the project just starting out, they have already gotten off on the right foot. During RECON’s last occultation campaign on the morning of Nov. 15, the network successfully detected its first occultation by a KBO.

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