Kiwi spots asteroid before NASA

BY MATT BOWEN
Last updated 11:05 28/10/2009
Jennie McCormick
Photo: MATT BOWEN

ASTRONOMICAL FIND: Jennie McCormick has moved on from planets in her latest discovery.

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After hours of searching the night sky for planets Jennie McCormick stumbled across something no one knew existed.

NASA, which scours space for any asteroid that could one day hit earth, didn't even know.

So the Manukau resident is rightfully chuffed.

"It was luck to be honest," she says.

It was nearly 2am one day last month when Ms McCormick decided to ditch the planet hunt in her home observatory and measure the position and orbit of a comet.

"I was measuring away and feeling tired, so I thought I'd better check the data," she says.

"I'm looking at the cometary data and there was this little thing moving through the field that I thought shouldn't be there."

She promptly sent the object's co-ordinates to double check with the American database.

Sure enough, no one had seen it before.

"I thought: 'Oh my gosh, this could be an asteroid or a comet'."

It was the former - a small chunk of rock about 250 million kilometres from the sun.

Ms McCormick says there's a wide asteroid belt that orbits between Mars and Jupiter and her rock is on that belt's inner boundary.

"I've found planets and that's pretty exciting but it was: 'Oh my god, I can name it'."

It's now known as 2009sa1 but in two years when the asteroid comes back into view Ms McCormick will officially name it.

But there's protocol to follow - she can't name it after herself, her pets or military leaders who haven't been dead for 100 years.

She's considering selling naming rights to pay for a new observatory.

Or she'll name it after her suburb Farm Cove, Pakuranga or neighbouring Wakaaranga Creek Reserve.

New Zealand Royal Astronomical Society president Grant Christie says the fact that Ms McCormick found the asteroid in the city with a small telescope is unique.

He says it's now difficult for amateurs to find an asteroid because automated surveys by NASA's powerful telescopes leave few unseen.

"Jennie wasn't particularly looking for one but it's a testament to her diligence and attention to detail that she found it.

"Most people wouldn't have seen it on the image. All credit to her.

"To find something that faint within a city is even more unusual."

And Ms McCormick is no half-baked stargazer - she's inspired by and passionate about astronomy.

"There's something that makes you think: 'Right, what are we going to find today?' It's so diverse and you never know what's going to come up.

"Getting into astronomy opened my mind to so many different possibilities and changed the way I feel about a lot of things.

"It's not until you get out and do it that you realise, wow, we're just this pinprick in space, we really are.

"It's a gorgeous planet but we're really nothing special."

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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