Rachel Knight joined the front lines of Earth’s defense last year armed with just a telescope and a phone app – scanning the sky for, among other things, asteroids hurtling toward the planet that could pose a threat to humanity’s existence.
As a part of an international group of citizen astronomers, Knight began last year helping to track and map asteroids as part of a network keeping scientists informed: What is out there, what it looks like and where it’s headed.
Her first case as a part of the group was tracking an object roughly the size of Mt. Everest and classified by NASA as a “near Earth asteroid.”
Knight joined 26 other people located in seven different countries to keep an eye on 1999 AP10, which passed within about 7 million miles of Earth in October and was traveling at about 18,000 miles per hour.
“Since quarantine, astronomy has become my hobby,” Knight said.
Microscopes to Telescopes
Knight, Amgen’s director of general medicine forecasting, had found herself – like millions of Americans during the global pandemic – looking for something to do that didn’t involve going out to public places in an effort to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. Some learned to bake bread. Some developed exercise routines. She decided to study asteroids getting a little too close to Earth.
She said looking up into the vast void of space seemed somewhat safe, while also offering a measure of freedom that balanced the restrictiveness of quarantine.
But astronomy was quite a change from how Knight had spent much of her academic and professional life.
The University of Chicago graduate spent her academic career looking down into microscopes and developing an interest in studying the near-invisible things that could attack and destroy humanity from the inside. After graduating, she became a research assistant at the University of Chicago Hospital in the chronobiology and neuroendocrinology research laboratory. She remained in the health care field and joined Amgen in 2015.
Space, however, has always been interesting to her. She grew up in Colorado and had “a little kiddie telescope – nothing formal.” She remembered studying the skies with her dad and how big it all felt to her.
“I think everyone, no matter who they are, are fascinated by the stars,” Knight said. “There is a connection to our humanity and our ancestors who looked up at the same stars. It’s a thread that pulls us together and pulls us through.”
During the pandemic, she and her husband would set up a telescope in their backyard and track the major constellations or take pictures of the moon. She said her husband – fellow Amgen employee Brad Davis – is a big science fiction fan and embraced a passion for the skies, too.
Then she came upon an online group looking for help to track asteroids orbiting close enough to Earth that they needed to be tracked, even though they weren’t an immediate danger.
Franck Marchis, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a chief scientific officer at Unistellar, said citizen astronomers like Knight are providing a valuable contribution to understanding the cosmos and Earth’s vulnerability. SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is a California-based non-profit and has been around since the mid-1980s.
“The Unistellar network of citizen astronomers accomplished something that professional astronomers have rarely done before. This proves the potential for meaningful Planetary Defense work to be conducted by everyday citizens who share a passion for space,” Marchis said. “Continuous observations of near-earth Asteroids when they are close to Earth are critical to understand them and potentially mitigate their risk to our planet.”
According to SETI, Asteroid 1999 AP10 is one of 20,000 known near-Earth Asteroids, but about 6% have a size estimate. Less than 1% have a shape estimate. The Amor-class asteroid orbits the sun every 1,340 days and is larger than 99% of most asteroids, according to SpaceReference.org. Amor-class asteroids have orbits exterior to Earth's but are interior to Mars.
Knight said she felt a little pressure as part of the team tracking the asteroid, but she also felt that as part of the team, they had a good chance to map the asteroid as each person caught images of it from different locations.
“You never knew if there might be clouds and you wouldn’t catch it,” Knight said. “But maybe someone in Switzerland or the guy in Japan got it. That’s the power of being on a team.”
Knight said she and her husband would take shifts monitoring the asteroid in four-hour blocks to capture images over several hours. On windy days, she would have to be more vigilant as even small vibrations could require adjustments to the telescope to keep the image in its sights.
“By contributing to a growing global community of citizen scientists we are constantly reminded that even simple actions, like the observations I help Rachel make from our backyard, can bring about positive change here on Earth,” Davis said. “And maybe, in the process, even help protect us from some of the void’s endless arsenal of asteroids and other near-earth objects.
A Panelist…And Beyond
The work of mapping Asteroid 1999 AP10 also landed Knight on a panel of scientists in March at the South by Southwest conference.
The virtual conference, “By All, for All: Citizen Science to Reveal Cosmos" included Marchis, Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist and the Citizen Science Officer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate and Connie Walker, an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomical Survey.
“It’s amazing to see all the events in our skies and being able to contribute,” Knight said.
After it was mapped, the asteroid was christened with a new name: Ada Carrera – named for Ada Amelia Carrera Rodriguez, the legendary Mexican motorcycle enthusiast and astronomy education advocate who died in May 2020.
Knight said the hobby of astronomy has continued to inspire her and, even as quarantine restrictions are eased and the world slowly opens up to pre-pandemic conditions, she hopes to discover more in the skies.
She said she has already looked at the Whirlpool Galaxy, which is 37 million light years away while also gazing at the surface of the Moon, just a mere 238,855 miles away. And all of it accessible by simply stepping into the backyard a few feet from her house.