NEWS RELEASE, 11/19/98

Massachusetts High School Students Discover New Asteroid

By Hughes Pack

NORTHFIELD, Mass. - Three stargazing high school students from Massachusetts made astronomical history last week by finding a previously unidentified celestial object in the Kuiper Belt.

Heather McCurdy, Miriam Gustafson and George Peterson, who formed one of six Asteroid Search Teams at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., collaborating with Oil City Area High School students in Oil City, Penn., found and verified the distant object, now officially called 1998 FS144.

Under the direction of astronomy teacher Hughes Pack, students searched computer images of the sky provided by the Supernova Cosmology Project at the University of California, Berkeley, as part their fall-term astronomy class.

How significant is the find?

"Before this one, only about 72 such objects had been identified in the Kuiper Belt," says Pack. "These Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), found beyond Neptune, are generally believed to be left over from the formation of our solar system."

"It has been one of the most rewarding discoveries I have had a small hand in of my entire career!," says the founder of the Hands-On Universe project, astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Lawrence Hall of Science.

He adds, "This is a fantastic piece of science, of education, of discovery. The Northfield Mount Hermon School (NMH) discovery has proven beyond a doubt that all students, from a broad range of backgrounds, can make solid, exciting, inspiring scientific contributions as part of their normal education."

"This is quite an accomplishment. Before this discovery, only government and professional astronomers have found such objects," said astronomer Tom Gehrels of the Lunar and Planetary Lab and Spacewatch Project at the University of Arizona, visiting the astronomy class of the students who made the discovery.

Gehrels impressed on the NMH students what a luxury it is for them to able to do what he calls "big-shot research" using some of the best telescopes in the world.

"It's only been in the last 10 years that there's been a trend toward getting people your age involved in research," Gehrels said. "When I was in school, I was forbidden to use the telescope until I was a graduate student. Even then, it was restricted."

"The Kuiper Belt represents a whole new dimension to the solar system, and it has the potential to tell us a great deal about how the system originated and evolved and how it compares to others," says Brian Marsden of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass. Marsden received the data from Pack and confirmed the discovery.

Finding 1998 FS144 was several years in the making for Hughes Pack, who joined the Hands-On Universe (HOU) project in 1991. HOU is now based at the Lawrence Hall of Science, the public science center at the University of California, Berkeley. Other HOU participants include teacher Tim Spuck, holder of the 1998 Pennsylvania Christa McAuliffe Fellowship, and his students at Oil City High School in Pennsylvania. With resources from the McAuliffe Fellowship, Spuck and his students played a key role in the discovery.

Given the object's coordinates, the Oil City students, including Stacey Hinds and Angel Birchard, were able to confirm the location of 1998 FS144 for their peers at NMH. Following their confirmation, final coordinate checking and refinement were performed by Pennypacker. Pack then sent off the complete set of observations to Marsden at the Minor Planet Center to make the discovery official.

Enabling students to identify asteroids or supernovae in the sky has been a major goal of HOU, which was started by Pennypacker in 1990. Pack says that it was actually astrophysicist Gerson Goldhaber, at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and a leader of the Supernova Cosmology Project, who realized several years ago that nearby asteroids and other objects in our solar system should be visible in these images. The discovery of such a distant object has been a dream for some time, but all those involved were shocked when it became reality.

"Just imagine, these students working from their classroom, finding a very important remnant of the early solar system, a hundred or so miles in diameter, orbiting beyond Neptune," says Pennypacker.

The NMH Asteroid Search is part of the HOU Asteroid Search project, a World Wide Web-based education and research project under development by Jodi Asbell-Clarke, Tim Spuck, and Hughes Pack. Asbell-Clarke of the TERC in Cambridge, Massachusetts has been the chief Web page developer.

The following groups and institutions were instrumental in HOU and, thus the students' discovery. The Education and Human Resources division of the National Science Foundation, Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory and its Blanco 4-meter telescope in Chile, the Lawrence Hall of Science, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and TERC.

For more information and pictures of KBO 1998 FS144, please visit the NMH Asteroid Search section on the Web at For more information on the Hands-On Universe Project, please visit

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