By Lisa Romero, BIO5 Institute
UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
Dolores Hill, who developed the Target Asteroids! program to engage the public in the UA-led OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, has been honored as one of 12 White House Champions of Change for citizen science.
University of Arizona researcher Dolores Hill, co-lead of the OSIRIS-REx Target Asteroids! program, has been recognized as one of 12 White House Champions of Change recipients.
Hill and her 11 counterparts were selected from a pool of about 1,000 nominations. The group was honored at a ceremony at the White House, which was attended by representatives of the Obama Administration and other honorees’ families, friends and colleagues.
“It is such an honor to be selected and go to the White House for the ceremony,” said Hill, a senior research specialist for the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL).
“I am especially thrilled that Target Asteroids! combines my lifelong interests in amateur astronomy and meteorites and brings me in touch with longtime amateur astronomer friends and former colleagues," Hill said.
Hill leads the UA program with LPL astronomer Carl Hergenrother, who heads the OSIRIS-REx astronomy working group.
The White House Champions of Change program recognizes efforts that are changing their communities. The award honors individuals and organizations that have demonstrated exemplary leadership in engaging the broader, non-expert community in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) research.
The announcement of Hill's award came just as the Association of American Universities named the UA one of only eight U.S. institutions supported by a $4.7 million grant-funded initiative designed to greatly enhance STEM education.
As part of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, which is led by the UA, the Target Asteroids! program involves amateur astronomers in observations of near-Earth asteroids to provide scientists with important information about these objects. Data amateur astronomers generate are intended to aid the mission, which is slated to visit a near-Earth asteroid in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.
Hill, who suggested the concept for Target Asteroids! and developed it with the mission’s educational team during the concept study for the mission in 2011, has been involved in astronomy since she was a young girl.
“My interest in astronomy really began around age five when I saw the ‘Golden Book of Astronomy’ at a train station and wouldn’t leave my mother alone until she bought it," Hill said, adding that her family began encouraging her interests.
"Like many amateur astronomers I know, I was inspired by everything surrounding the Apollo program. The first book I ever purchased at a Scholastic school book fair was a biography entitled, ‘Rocket Genius: Robert Goddard - Father of the Space Age,’" Hill said. "It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I bought my first 6-inch telescope, now considered small by today’s standards. I loved to see the colors of stars and was excited to learn that it is those very colors that tell us their compositions and ages.”
That love and passion for astronomy extends into her work today.
Target Asteroids! seeks to engage amateur astronomers in studying asteroid targets for future missions and to increase our knowledge of the near-Earth asteroid population and, specifically, asteroid Bennu, the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. To that end, observers track asteroids over time, measure their brightness and gather clues about their shape, spin and composition.
In the program's first year alone, 138 amateurs registered from 25 states and 26 countries and provided 87 sets of data on 17 near-Earth asteroids.
Overall, Target Asteroids! serves as a template for future OSIRIS-REx citizen science programs, demonstrating how to foster collaboration between scientists and the public.
Also, as the program continues to provide data important to future missions to asteroids, leading to greater understanding of potentially hazardous asteroids, other expansions are forthcoming.
“Dolores and Carl have conceived and implemented a tremendously useful program that contributes significantly to our science, said Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and a UA LPL professor. "We are very proud to have Dolores’ efforts recognized by the White House Champion of Change program."
The program will continue to expand the role of amateurs in cutting-edge science while also involving younger, less experienced observers. Working with partners such as the International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC), which concentrates on youth programs and astronomy clubs, the program can interest the next generation in astronomical observing, science, engineering and the OSIRIS-REx mission.
Recognizing the importance of Target Asteroids! participants, Hergenrother, also the OSIRIS-REx astronomy lead, said: "Observations from around the world fill gaps in our knowledge and are an important contributor in revealing these objects as worlds."
In addition to her work on Target Asteroids!, Hill has studied meteorites at the Lunar and Planetary Lab for 32 years.
“Since joining LPL I’ve followed my passion for studying meteorites to learn about the solar system. I am especially excited to learn more about the 'parent' near-Earth asteroids that produce the meteorites in our collections," Hill said. "OSIRIS-REx is a perfect combination of my interests.”
Hill is actively involved in many educational and outreach efforts of OSIRIS-REx and LPL, sharing her passion for meteorites, asteroids and astronomy in general with the public.
“’Champions of Change’ provides a special opportunity to encourage young people just starting out in citizen science activities, too," Hill said. "The OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return and Target Asteroids! citizen science can inspire our communities to participate in science as the Apollo program inspired me."
UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory