In 2027, NASA’s Lucy mission will for the first time fly by Jupiter’s Trojans, primitive bodies that hold crucial information about the history of our solar system. This is a journey citizen astronomers will soon be able to join: Unistellar, the citizen science startup, has announced that two of its eVscopes have been the first telescopes to gather critical data about the asteroid Orus, one of Lucy’s targets.
One of the features of the Unistellar eVscope is that its users can easily become citizen astronomers. In a few minutes, they can set up their digital telescopes and have them point at any interesting celestial object to gather accurate scientific data while they are observing it. This capability recently made the news when Unistellar and the SETI Institute signed an agreement to develop citizen astronomy by leveraging Unistellar’s large network of connected eVscopes.
Recently, NASA asked the astronomical community to contribute to its Lucy project. As many uncertainties surround its six targeted asteroids, NASA needs help to better understand their shape and trajectories, and therefore to improve the path of this $450 million spacecraft. Determining the shape and size of an asteroid will, for example, allow engineers to optimize the exploration schedule, and increase the science return generated by the mission.
On 7 September , a Unistellar team flew to Oman for the world’s first demonstration of citizen science using the eVscope. Oman was the most favorable spot on Earth from which to observe Orus. More precisely, what observers could see was Orus occulting a magnitude 11 star, an event that generated a light curve full of valuable information, such as a precise estimate of the position of Orus as well as an estimate of its size.
Dr. Franck Marchis, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and Unistellar’s Chief Scientific Officer, says: “Orus was recently discovered, in 1999, and much remains to be learned about it. Its shape is poorly constrained and we don’t know if it possesses one or several satellites, which would obviously have consequences for the design of the exploration phase of the Lucy mission. This is the first time an Orus occultation has been observed. We were at the right spot, and everything worked perfectly. One station located near Khalil, Oman detected and recorded this occultation while the other one only 30 km away did not see anything. In the future, it will be as simple as pushing a button on the Unistellar eVscope’s app for users to participate in these campaigns.”
This work was presented at the EPSC-DPS meeting by Dr. Franck Marchis in Geneva on 17 September.
The predicted path of the occultation was provided by Marc Buie, Astronomer at Southwest Research Institute using a combination of observations from the ESA space telescope Gaia, and ground-based facilities like PanSTARRS, as well as other robotic telescopes. A new occultation by Orus will be visible in Australia in November of this year.
With Lucy scheduled for launch in October 2021, Unistellar eVscope users will have multiple opportunities to contribute to NASA’s mission. More than 2,500 connected telescopes have already been preordered worldwide, with the first ones shipping soon.
“This achievement of the Unistellar telescope is a powerful demonstration of how transformative this instrument is for amateur astronomy and citizen science” says Bill Diamond, CEO of the SETI Institute. “For the first time in history, an affordable and portable telescope can make real contributions to serious science! We’re delighted to be the science partner for what is truly a game-changer for astronomy and for science education.”