SAN FRANCISCO – The inaugural Schweickart Prize was awarded June 28 to an astronomer proposing an international campaign to detect objects approaching Earth from the direction of the sun.

Joseph DeMartini, a University of Maryland astronomy Ph.D. student, won a $10,000 grant from B612 Foundation’s prize named for Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart. The prize, to be awarded annually, recognizes graduate students with innovative ideas for planetary defense.

“We are now technically able to slightly modify the natural clockwork of the solar system to enhance the survival of Earth life,” Schweickart said in a news briefing. “This is the challenge to be met by Joe DeMartini and many other bright young people who will follow in his footsteps.”

In addition to funding, DeMartini said the prize gives him access to a network of people and organizations that could help carry out his proposal to focus ground-based telescopes toward the sun for roughly an hour before sunrise and after sunset.

The goal is to detect asteroids or comets in Apollo or Atens orbits “that cross the Earth’s orbit, because those are the ones that have the highest chance of a potential impact,” DeMartini said.

Apollo asteroids spend most of their time outside Earth’s orbit. Aten asteroids tend to be inside Earth orbit.

“In order to see asteroids in the Aten family during any large fraction of their orbit, you would need to be looking in the direction of the sun,” DeMartini said.

Rubin Observatory

In particular, DeMartini hopes the award lends support to a proposal for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile to conduct a detailed survey of the near-sun region during twilight. A network of ground-based observatories could make additional observations at sunrise and sunset to verify discoveries. Further support for orbit characterization would come from recent advances in NEO verification methods.

Ground-based telescopes ignore “a huge swath” of the inner solar system because the sky is simply too bright, DeMartini said.

When “the sun is just below the horizon at sunset or just below the horizon before sunrise, the very bright object of the sun is suddenly out of our field of view,” DeMartini said. “The sky is still a little bit bright, but we can point our telescope in the direction of the sun and not have the image totally overexposed by solar brightness.”

Schweickart Prize sponsors include Anousheh Ansari, Barrington Crater Co, Future Ventures, Geoffrey Notkin, Jurvetson Family Foundation, Meteor Crater, Randy Schweickart and Michelle Heng, and Rusty B. Schweickart and Joanne Keys.

Rusty Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut, is a co-founder of the Association of Space Explorers and of the B612 Foundation.

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