Sunday 8 May 2011

2011 April notes: 2011 GP59 and NEOCP changes

April continued the good spell of weather that set in during March and ended up being the warmest April since records began for the British Isles. Plenty of Near-Earth asteroids were picked up by the surveys but probably the most interesting object was 2011 GP59 which was discovered by the amateur run La Sagra survey in southern Spain just before midnight on April 8th. It was described as mag +17 by the discoverers and was heavily observed from Europe in the next few hours, with 45 positions being reported by the time I sent my first position in, just 2 hours after discovery. It was immediately obvious that it was varying greatly in brightness in the space of just a few minutes and it could be seen to brighten up and then fade completely from view in real-time as sequential images were captured and displayed on the pc. Also evident early on that first night was that it would brighten over the coming days and make a close approach about a week later. It passed Earth at 1.4 Lunar Distances on the evening of April 15 but at a southerly declination and running into evening twilight so difficult to observe from the UK. Nick James posted a very good animation on YouTube showing the rapid brightness changes from the night of April 11th.

I last observed it in the early hours of April 12th when it was 16th mag and still moving relatively slowly at 9"/min., obtaining 376 images over a three hour period to try and determine a lightcurve. The initial reduction of the data showed a dramatic curve with a 2 mag amplitude and a period of just over 7 minutes. However, there was quite a noticeable scatter in the brighter segments of the curve, just where the errors would normally be expected to be at their smallest.

Initial lightcurve reduction, showing large scatter at the brightest part of the curve, where scatter would normally expected to be least

So Canopus was used to try and determine whether the object was tumbling and if a secondary period was contributing to the scatter of the main curve. Canopus has functionality to determine an initial lightcurve and can then subtract that modelled variation from the original data points. The adjusted data points can then be used to try and solve for a secondary period. If a secondary period is apparent, then this can in turn be subtracted from the original data points and a fresh determination of the primary period  made. A few of those iterations for 2011 GP59 resulted in the two lightcurves shown here, the main one with a 7.352 +/- 0.002 minute period and 1.8 mag amplitude, while the secondary period was found to be 10.25 +/- 0.02 minutes with an amplitude of approximately 0.4 magnitudes. There is a great deal of scatter throughout the secondary lightcurve and it is best viewed from several feet away(!) when the sinusoidal lightcurve becomes much more apparent. The overall noise is mainly due to the secondary period being superimposed on the large 1.8 magnitude variation of the primary period and therefore both the maximum and minimum of the secondary curve have data points contributed from the faintest parts (as well as the brightest parts) of the overall variation, so low signal/noise ratio measures, with large scatter are unfortunately present throughout the secondary curve.

Primary lightcurve with secondary subtracted

Secondary lightcurve with primary subtracted
Using measurements obtained by the Lowell Observatory from the previous night, tumbling asteroid expert Dr Petr Pravec reported similar results in the Minor Planet Mailing list here with periods of 7.3501 +/- 0.0004 minutes and 10.258 +/- 0.003 minutes.

Users of the NEO Confirmation web page will have noticed during late April that the number of objects on the page has exploded from what in previous months had been at most around 30 objects at any one time to much higher numbers, for a while in the first few days of May there were over 160 objects listed. The surveys are not necessarily picking up any more NEOs than they had done a few days earlier, rather the Minor Planet Center (MPC) has changed the threshold "NEO probability" that a newly discovered object has to score to get onto the page. Following a workshop in March that included representatives from all the NASA funded surveys, JPL and the MPC, the attendees overwhelmingly voted for more objects to appear on the page, so objects that only have a small chance of actually being a NEO (such as objects with Mars crossing orbits, Hungarias, Phocaeas etc.) are now appearing on the NEOCP along with more definite NEOs.

As an observer, the sheer number of objects on the page makes target choice very difficult and to help, the MPC are making some modifications. Initially they have started displaying the NEO probability as a percentage against each object, so the observer can choose objects with high scores, say 50%+ if they want to have a good chance of observing a new NEO. In beta test now and hopefully soon to be introduced fully is a means of filtering the page by magnitude, declination and NEO probability which should make planning an observing session much easier.