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Mendel Observatory celebrated minor planet observing site

Mendel Observatory celebrated its selection as a minor planet observing site with an open house that featured the dedication of a plaque commemorating the event and tours Thursday.

Chelsea Comfort ’14 and Lauren McCarthy ’15 spearheaded the charge to get the recognition as part of an honors program assignment, said Honors Program Manager Lisa Cavallaro.

The Minor Planet Center at Harvard University bestowed the recognition on the observatory.

Thursday’s dedication was chosen after researching the solar schedule and the moon’s position to take advantage of Mendel’s telescope, Cavallaro said.

It was an important project for the college, Comfort said earlier this year.

“This will earn the Merrimack observatory a site identifier, benefitting future users of the observatory because the center will accept Merrimack College’s position data for asteroids and comets,” she said.

McCarthy and Comfort carried out the honors program assignment through adjunct professor Ralph Pass‘ Introduction to Astronomy class.

“What I had them do was collect enough quality data, process, format and send it to the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University,” Pass said. “This was to demonstrate our skills and ability to measure the position of minor planets in the sky.”

The center approved the work and assigned Mendel observatory identification W82.

Minor planets are asteroids usually hurtling through space between Mars and Jupiter but they can get close to Earth, which is why it’s important to accurately track them, Pass said.

“Basically, what happens is over the course of time the orbit deteriorates so they will frequently ask anyone who can, to observe those objects, so we are going to do that then submit observations.”

McCarthy and Comfort used an astronomical camera with the Mendel telescope to photograph five asteroids over the course of two nights.

“I was very impressed by them because they are liberal arts students, not science, so picking up everything going forward with it and doing it well, I was very pleased,” Pass said. 

The dedication was co-sponsored by the Honors Program and the School of Science and Engineering.