Searching the heavens for 'the little guys' - Albuquerque Journal

Searching the heavens for ‘the little guys’

Jack Drummond at the Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, on the eve of his team’s 2009 discovery of a satellite, now named Olympias, around asteroid Roxane. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Using a once-classified, cutting-edge telescope to scour the heavens, Jack Drummond studies “the little guys in our solar system.”

An astronomer at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, Drummond has made a career out of studying small asteroids – and the even smaller moons that orbit them.

A laser beam that is used for observations rises into the heavens from the Air Force Research Lab’s Directed Energy Directorate Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Last month, Drummond and his team published an article in the Icarus International Journal of Solar System Studies about the 3-mile-wide moon Olympias, which orbits an asteroid called Roxane.

Drummond was one of the astronomers who discovered the moon in 2009, and the paper relies on multiple observations over a decade or so.

Drummond’s research has taken an ironic path. In 1987, when he was a researcher at the University of Arizona, he published a paper that explained why it was impossible for asteroids to have their own moons orbiting them.

But he said his theory was proved wrong four years later, when the Galileo spacecraft on its way to Jupiter recorded a small asteroid with its own moon.

“At that time, there were lots of reports of possible moons from asteroids going in front of stars and many reports … of shadows. But they were never confirmed,” Drummond said in an interview. “The Galileo spacecraft opened up the floodgates.”

Drummond has worked at Kirtland since 1991. He received his Ph.D. from New Mexico State University and started at Kirtland after adaptive optics technology was declassified. Adaptive optics had been a government secret for two decades prior, he said.

The technology, Drummond says, “untwinkles the stars and gets down to the resolution produced by the telescope.”

The result is a much clearer portrait of celestial bodies.

“Up until then, all asteroids were points of light,” he said. “Suddenly, you could see how big asteroids are.”

Drummond now works at Kirtland as a contractor for Leidos, an engineering company. He previously worked on the Air Force base as a government civil servant.

Col. Peter Norton, the Space Electro-Optics division chief, said the telescope crew and researchers at the SOR have come to rely on Drummond’s expertise.

“You can engage him in a fruitful conversation on almost any subject – he is a great colleague to have on the SOR team,” he said.

Drummond said studying moons around small asteroids has all sorts of real-world applications.

For the military, the science can make the space near Earth safer. The SOR is an Air Force program that is transitioning to the Space Force.

Drummond says his research can help the military, which has concerns of possible collisions between satellites or other objects in near-Earth space.

“The reason we even look at the asteroids at the SOR is because they are a good proxy for manmade satellite observations,” Drummond said. “Nobody wants to be near each other’s satellites. We can’t tell two satellites to get together. … Instead, we look at asteroids and their moons. It’s a perfect analogy, a perfect proxy.”

But the research is also valuable to astronomers.

When an asteroid and its moon are discovered and their orbits mapped out, it’s only a matter of using the laws of physics to find their mass and volume. From those measurements, scientists can figure out what the asteroid is made of.

“My personal prediction is that in 500 years most of our resources will come from the asteroid belt. We’re going to be going and mining them, and so we need to know what they’re made of,” Drummond said. “And if a near-Earth asteroid is going to hit the Uarth, is it going to be soft and flaky or is it going to be hard and metallic? So we need to study all these guys.”


Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email yourstory@abqjournal.com

Nativo Sponsored Content

taboola desktop

MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS

1
Two seriously injured in overnight car crashes
ABQnews Seeker
Two people received serious injuries in ... Two people received serious injuries in separate crashes in Albuquerque late Saturday and early Sunday morning, according to police. The first crash happened near ...
2
APD says man believed to have been struck by ...
ABQnews Seeker
The man shot near Montgomery and ... The man shot near Montgomery and Morningside around 2 a.m. Sunday morning was actually the same person believed to have been struck and killed ...
3
Boise State dominates on boards, tops UNM men
ABQnews Seeker
The Boise State Broncos outrebounded the ... The Boise State Broncos outrebounded the UNM Lobos by 24 and won in the Pit, 71-63.
4
Rio Rancho eatery set to open new dining area
ABQnews Seeker
K’Lynn’s Southern & Cajun Fusion’s extra ... K’Lynn’s Southern & Cajun Fusion’s extra space will open Saturday
5
Emptying the Notebook: A glimmer of hope for Lobo ...
ABQnews Seeker
Extra notes, quotes, stats, tweets, video ... Extra notes, quotes, stats, tweets, video and whatever else I could empty out of the notebook after Saturday's Lobos loss to Boise State in ...
6
TOP OF MIND: Should Alec Baldwin be charged criminally?
ABQnews Seeker
This week's question: Why should or ... This week's question: Why should or shouldn't Alec Baldwin be charged criminally in connection to the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injury ...
7
Downturn in blood donations concerns state hospitals
ABQnews Seeker
Shortages partly due to pandemic Shortages partly due to pandemic
8
Ready or not, it's legislative session time
ABQnews Seeker
Lawmakers to tackle host of NM ... Lawmakers to tackle host of NM issues
9
Details emerge in wrongful arrest of teen for homicide
ABQnews Seeker
APD officer suspended after misidentifying murder ... APD officer suspended after misidentifying murder suspect