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Olin College Professor Awarded NASA Grant

Assistant Professor of Computational Physics and Planetary Science Carrie Nugent has been awarded a three-year grant from NASA to detect asteroids in archival data. This work will be in collaboration with Dr. James “Gerbs” Bauer at the University of Maryland.

The Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) survey was a pioneering scientific effort that operated from 1995 to 2007. The survey discovered more than 40,000 minor planets and hundreds of comets. At the conclusion of the program, each original image from the NEAT survey was archived by the Planetary Data Systems Small Bodies Node.

Nugent, Bauer, and a team of students will re-analyze the archived NEAT images. With the aid of modern software techniques, such as machine learning, they will identify near-Earth asteroids and comets in the data. Nugent and Bauer estimate that this work will double the number of asteroids detected in the NEAT data.

Much of the work will be done by Olin summer research students. The project will use Olin’s Deep Thought Supercomputer, a project of Olin Associate Professor of Computer Science Paul Ruvolo. The software developed by the team will be published on GitHub, enabling other researchers and citizen scientists to find asteroids in their data.

“This project requires complex software engineering,” Nugent said. “It plays to the strengths of Olin students. I can’t wait to see what we discover when we look at this rich dataset with new technology.”

Carrie Nugent, Ph.D. teaches her lab with a student at the white board

The majority of Americans say that one of NASA’s top priorities should be “monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially collide with Earth” (Pew Research Center, 2018). NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program works “to find, track, and characterize” these objects.

In 2018, Nugent joined the faculty at Olin College, where, in addition to teaching several courses, she has been conducting research with undergraduate students that involves searching for --and tracking-- near-Earth asteroids. For years, Nugent’s research has been focused on discovering asteroids in an attempt to identify potential threats to planet Earth. Nugent was recently awarded the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science. The prize is awarded annually by the Division of for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.