AcademicsSep 30, 2022

updated Nov 20, 2023

The Sky's the Limit

Fer ’23 tracks a near-earth asteroid

Late nights are a staple of teenage summers.

For Fernanda Morais Laroca ’23, time with friends until 1 a.m., 3 a.m., or later was the norm, but not because she was partying away the summer of 2022. Rather, Fer was part of a team tracking a near-earth asteroid and logging late-night shifts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Morehead Observatory.

“The coffee intake was off the charts,” notes Fer, “but it was an amazing experience with some really smart, really talented people, and an opportunity to get some hands-on research experience in astronomy, which is what I want to go into in the future.”

Fer participated in the Summer Science Program, a residential enrichment program open to promising science students and motivated rising seniors from around the world. The select program's curriculum features astrophysics, biochemistry, and genomics.

“I was definitely interested in the program’s academics, but their website also talked a lot about the students who participate, and I wanted to meet those students — people with the same interests I have,” says Fer. Along the way, she gained practical experience using vector calculus (helpful when studying motion in a three-dimensional space), physics, astronomy, and the computer programming language Python.

In all, Fer and her colleagues spent more than 300 hours collecting and analyzing data and tracking the night sky. The 36 participants on the UNC campus also had opportunities to hear from and interact with prominent guest speakers from the scientific world. The program ran for 39 days, from mid-June to the end of July, and the typical daily schedule featured two, three-hour lectures on topics such as multivariable calculus or astronomy concepts and the mathematics proofs students needed for their research.“

The lectures were really, really fast-paced,” explains Fer, who estimates one session covered Advanced Placement Physics in about three hours. “Academically, it was really challenging, but that encourages collaboration, because you are all drowning, so you have to help each other.”

At night, students took shifts in the university observatory, using UNC’s 24-inch, research-grade telescope. Fer’s team took photographs of the night sky, aiming to capture the near-earth asteroid “6569 Ondaatje.”

Information from the photographs was then translated into numbers, generating an OD — Orbit Determination — code, using a series of complex calculations that showed how the asteroid was moving through the sky. That information was then used to run simulations in collaboration with the Southwest Research Institute, which, among other things, determined the likelihood that the asteroid could impact the earth in the future.

“That was my favorite part,” adds Fer, “I liked seeing the simulation run, because you input the asteroid position and velocity vectors, and the computer runs a program to simulate the asteroid’s path for the next 50 million years. It’s fascinating to think what a computer can do when you give it the right instructions.”

Her advice? Don’t put off studying for that exam later this week. There’s about a 4-in-60 chance 6569 Ondaatje will strike the earth in the next 30 million years.