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Maui youths keep an eye on dying satellite, asteroid

Five curious students help NASA, perform cutting-edge astronomy

Holden Suzuki (left) and Wilson Chau., Maui Waena Intermediate School students, spotted a 250-pound space satellite projected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on Aug. 29. Inoperative satellite OGO-1 did in fact break up over uninhabited portions of the South Pacific on Aug. 29. Photo courtesy of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy

Five young Mauians played significant roles in spotting a dying satellite and an asteroid that buzzed the Earth over the summer with the help of their mentor J.D. Armstrong of the University of Hawaii.

Holden Suzuki and Wilson Chau, both 8th-graders at Maui Waena Intermediate School, spotted a 1,070-pound space satellite in early August and helped determine that the 50-year-old abandoned satellite was projected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere Aug. 29.

With help of research done by Suzuki and Chau, scientists were able to project that the inoperative satellite, OGO-1, would break up over the South Pacific, away from inhabited areas, which it did on the projected date. 

The young pair are both highly decorated in county and state science fairs, but this project was clearly a step up.

“I have an extensive amount of work with Wilson,” the 13-year-old Suzuki said. “We were partners for both of our science fairs, and we worked very extensively together for this specific project as well.”

This is an artist’s rendering of OGO-1, which crashed into the South Pacific on Aug. 29. Two Maui Waena Intermediate students helped identify and track the falling satellite with the use of the Las Cumbres Observatory Faulkes Telescope North on Haleakala. NASA photo

Armstrong, a UH Institute for Astronomy (IfA) outreach astronomer, helps Maui students on science projects using data and time on telescopes around the world.

The Maui Waena duo are clearly standouts. A “pretty impressive” amateur astronomer captured the satellite before them, but the work of the Maui youths “is a big deal.”

“The fact that they’ve got some access to a professional-grade telescope is really kind of a big deal,” Armstrong said. “Helping keep the planet safe is really great, to see them able to do that.

“They’re young, they’re bright, and they’re doing good things. I think they’ve got tremendous potential.”

Suzuki and Chau used observations from the Las Cumbres Observatory Faulkes Telescope North on Haleakala to track OGO-1.

Observations from Las Cumbres Observatory Faulkes Telescope North on Haleakala were used to track falling satellite OGO-1. Photo courtesy of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy

“It’s pretty great, but I think what I’m most grateful for is just J.D. letting us do this in the first place,” Suzuki said. “I mean, it’s a big commitment to let kids do this because it’s important science and he’s letting little kids do it.”

In July, three other Maui students used the Pan-STARRS telescope atop Haleakala — the world leader in finding near-Earth objects — to track an asteroid 65 feet in diameter that appeared likely to pass close to Earth.

Asteroid 2020 OO1 safely flew by Earth a week later. 

Some of the first follow-up images of the approaching asteroid were taken by Hawaii high school students participating in the IfA HI STARR program using telescopes from the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network.

HI STAR students Esken Guarin and Jed Teagarden obtained data from the South Africa node of the Las Cumbres Observatory GT 1 meter network on the night 2020 OO1 was discovered. Armstrong also mentors Kihei Charter High School student David Florez, who verified images with Las Cumbres Observatory’s Faulkes Telescope North. 

Those observations were reported to the Minor Planet Center and the students received credit. 

It clearly touches Armstrong’s heart to be able to work with Maui youths and help them on their way to science-based careers.

“It’s just incredible to work with students like this,” Armstrong said. “To see them kind of hit a home run like this, you know, even better. It really is quite amazing when they get something like this done.”

Guarin, a freshman at Seabury Hall, and Teagarden, a freshman at Lahainaluna High, have been working for a couple years with Armstrong’s help.

“We got an email from J.D., and he told us that NASA had gotten some data, and they did some research that maybe this asteroid would potentially come close to Earth,” Guarin said. “That was sent out on a NASA scout system alert, and so we got data from J.D. on that.

“With our data that we contributed, it helped the people at NASA better determine the trajectory of the asteroid and to see if it was actually going to hit Earth or if it was going to come more close to it.”

The 14-year-old Guarin said the work that he and his Maui peers get to perform is for the good of the world — 2020 OO1 came within 1.7 lunar units of the Earth, a close call in the world of asteroids nearing the planet.

“Probably a couple years ago, I have never guessed that I would be doing this stuff — it’s an awesome opportunity that we get out here in Hawaii,” Guarin said.

Teagarden is also highly successful in science fair competitions. He is touched by the significant work that he gets to perform.

“It’s really interesting because not a lot of asteroids come this close very often,” Teagarden said. “Our role was to figure out where it is in the sky and kind of its trajectory, making sure where it’s going. Usually when asteroids come close to Earth they don’t usually hit — it’s amazing when they do come pretty close. So, we didn’t really expect it to (hit), and it didn’t but, yeah, I think we played a role.”

Guarin and Teagarden had the same data and working largely separately, but they came to the same conclusion on the asteroid.

“Being able to get data from all these telescopes all around the world is really an amazing opportunity,” Teagarden said. “Especially the telescopes up on Haleakala, Faulkes North. Hawaii is one of the best places for telescopes, so to be able to use them is really just an amazing opportunity.”

Armstrong guides a group of about 20 students and all of them are required to work hard.

“Some people wonder if it is a good idea to put the safety of the planet in the hands of teenagers. I see them as scientists, and if they know what they are doing, then age doesn’t make much difference,” Armstrong said in a UH news release. “I’ve seen a lot of students who do things like this end up getting scholarships for college. It is great to see them get the opportunity of the excitement of doing real science, and then for the experience to help pay for college.”

Armstrong stressed that the students are working hand in hand with some of the world’s cutting-edge astronomers.

“There’s a lot of people involved with this including in the case of the satellite, the Catalina Sky Survey, the people at NASA, the scout system that sent out the alert, the Minor Planet Center, and the other scientists around the world that also got observations on this,” Armstrong said. “The kids, they kind of did their part and were team players on this.”

* Robert Collias can be reached at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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