Rapid City Journal article, March 11, 2005

The binary asteroids 2005 AB are the comet-like streak
in the center of this photograph, taken earlier this month.
The two asteroids will come within 16 million miles of earth
later this month. Photo courtesy of the Badlands Observatory)

Badlands astronomers make heavenly find
By Bill Harlan, Journal Staff Writer

QUINN Two astronomers working at a small but sophisticated observatory near Quinn, 6 miles east of Wall, have discovered that a recently identified "near-earth asteroid" is really two chunks of rock, one orbiting the other.

"Discovery is always exciting," Badlands Observatory founder, owner and director Ron Dyvig said.

"This asteroid was not behaving normally," University of North Dakota master's degree student Vishnu Reddy said. "The data was all over the place."

Dyvig, 62, has discovered and identified 27 asteroids since he opened his private observatory in 2000. One asteroid is even named after South Dakota.

Reddy, who is from southern India, is a 27-year-old journalist-turned-asteroid-hunter. He has 17 discoveries to his credit since 2002.

The two men have never met face to face.

Dyvig has configured his 26-inch telescope to be operated remotely through an Internet connection. Reddy said outdoor wintertime observations in North Dakota turned out to be "a shock." His search for a good asteroid telescope with an Internet connection led him to Quinn, population 44, and to Dyvig.

The two men quickly agreed to share resources of time and equipment.

The binary asteroid they observed has been named "2005 AB" by the International Astronomical Union. It is only the 23rd binary among the 3,200 near-earth objects discovered so far, though Dyvig says many of more of those objects may turn out to be binaries.

Near-earth asteroids are those with orbits that intersect the earth's orbit. Locating them could help save the planet.

The observatory in Arizona that recently discovered 2005 AB identified it as a single asteroid.

When the Badlands Observatory's telescope and its digital camera first captured 2005 AB in early February, something didn't look right though "look" might be the wrong word. Reddy didn't "see" two dots. Rather, he noticed "noise" in the data.

"Noise," Reddy said, can either mean something very bad (instrument error) or something very good.

Lots of things can go wrong for asteroid hunters.

The 2005 AB binary, for example, is 18 million miles from Earth this week. By March 27, it will have closed to within 16 million miles its closest point but the larger partner in the binary is only 2 kilometers in diameter. The "moon" in the pair is only a half-kilometer across. At that distance, the asteroids are much too small to be seen as a pair even with Dyvig's 26-inch telescope funneling light into 180-second digital time exposures.

Instead, Reddy measured the object's "light curve." That revealed a regular, cyclical fluctuation in the object's brightness. Reddy sent the data to a binary-asteroid expert at the Ondrejov Observatory in the Czech Republic, who suggested a closer look.

"Five nights in a row, I was up all night," Reddy said.

The light-curve data revealed that 2005 AB was a binary, with the smaller object orbiting the larger one every 18 hours or so.

The Ondrejov Observatory confirmed the observation. This week, the giant radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, bounced radar beams off the binary, adding further confirmation.

The discovery was a coup for the Quinn observatory, which Dyvig calls "a lifetime dream."

Dyvig graduated from Deadwood High School in 1961 and attended South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and Black Hills State University. He worked in astronomy and optical sciences at University of Arizona before returning to the Black Hills.

After a 17-year career in finance departments of local car dealerships, he retired to pursue his goal of a South Dakota observatory.

He chose Quinn, near Wall, for its lack of light pollution and because the old hospital was available. The town chipped in by installing astronomy-friendly low-glare street lights, and Dyvig's dream even survived a nearly disastrous fire.

He built the telescope himself. Off the shelf, it would cost $200,000; his investment was less than $20,000 including about $12,000 for a "CCD" digital camera.

Dyvig lives at the observatory.

He drives a rural mail route three days a week, and he also sells time on his telescope to universities and research organizations. The South Dakota Space Grant Consortium, for example, buys time for students in a program called "Dark Skies, Bright Minds."

Universities, high schools and middle schools in South Dakota have used the telescope. So has St. Augustine High School in Belgium.

Astronomy is one of the few fields of science to which amateur observers, such as Dyvig, can contribute, though he admits that, more and more, the Badlands Observatory is edging through the boundary between amateur and professional.

Discoveries such as 2005 AB can only help. "I'm just delighted we did this on my telescope," Dyvig said.

Reddy is delighted, too and eager to finish his master's degree in space studies. He hopes to earn a doctorate before returning home, where he already has helped found Space Guard India, a program to warn against asteroid impacts.

That is important, Reddy said, in a country surrounded on three sides by water. Reddy's father watched the Dec. 26 tsunami wash ashore less than a mile from his home. "That was a really small wave," Reddy said. "Maybe 30 feet."

An asteroid, Reddy said, could cause a tsunami "a thousand feet high, at least" which, apparently, is enough to keep him up at night.


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