Citizen Scientists Uncover Hidden Secrets of the Solar System: “Active Asteroids” Project Reveals Dozens of Rare Celestial Bodies

In a groundbreaking collaboration between scientists and the global community, the “Active Asteroids” Citizen Science project has unveiled a trove of discoveries, shedding light on a poorly understood population of objectspreviously unknown “active minor planets” in our solar system.

Launched on August 31, 2021, through a NASA Partner program hosted on the Zooniverse online platform, the Active Asteroids initiative calls upon volunteers from around the world to assist in the search for active asteroids — a category of rare and elusive small solar system objects characterized by comet-like tails or comae. Studying these objects is crucial for scientists to understand fundamental questions about the formation and evolution of the solar system, including the origins of water here on Earth. Additionally, active asteroids may be valuable for future space exploration because the same ices that are responsible for comet-like tails can also be used for critical resources, such as rocket fuel and breathable air.

2015 VA108:
Volunteers from the NASA Partner “Active Asteroids” Citizen Science project identified a comet tail coming from asteroid 2015 VA108. The prominent tail is pointed roughly towards the 4 o’clock position in this image originally captured with the Dark Energy Camera in October 2015. The object orbits entirely within the main asteroid belt (located between Mars and Jupiter) so the object is classified as an active asteroid and a rare “Main-belt comet” candidate.

Asteroids can also appear active due to impacts from other asteroids or by spinning so fast that material is actually ejected off into space.  Identifying these types of events also helps scientists learn more about how often such events occur and how asteroids behave when experiencing them, which can help inform the design of future asteroid deflection missions like NASA’s recent DART mission to the Didymos asteroid system.

The project, which is ongoing, utilizing publicly available data from the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) on the Victor M. Blanco telescope in Chile, involved the examination of over 430,000 images of known asteroids by 8,300 volunteers. The results, detailed in a recent paper, showcase the power of community engagement in advancing scientific knowledge.

Figure 1: The 16 active object discoveries made by the Active Asteroids program. Each panel shows an object at the center, with a tail or coma (dust cloud) emanating from that object. (Image Credit: Henry Hsieh)

The recent survey conducted by volunteers has led to some groundbreaking findings. A total of 15 new active objects were identified, marking a significant challenge to the conventional wisdom regarding the elusive nature of asteroids. However, the discoveries did not stop there; they extended beyond active asteroids to include a diverse array of celestial phenomena. This includes the identification of one active Centaur, four active quasi-Hilda asteroids, and seven Jupiter-family comets (JFCs). Additionally, the project unearthed unexpected scientific insights, such as the discovery of historical activity on certain objects that was previously unknown. Dynamical analyses conducted during the project also prompted the reclassification of some objects, thereby adding an unforeseen layer of scientific depth to the findings.

Dr. Colin Orion Chandler

Project founder Dr. Colin Orion Chandler, a LINCC Frameworks project scientist at the University of Washington and DiRAC Institute, expressed gratitude for the enthusiastic response from Citizen Scientists. “The collective effort of our volunteers has expanded our understanding of the solar system. The discoveries made by this diverse group of individuals highlight the importance of engaging the public in scientific endeavors.”

Notably, the paper includes nine Citizen Scientists among the co-authors, signifying their critical role in the project’s success. When asked about the motivation behind their project involvement, one Citizen Scientist author, José Campos of Setubal, Portugal, said “I like the Active Asteroid project because it is very dynamic and there is always a good chance to contribute with a discovery.”

The “Active Asteroids” project not only furthers our knowledge of celestial bodies but also demonstrates the potential of Citizen Science in advancing cutting-edge research. The success of this initiative reaffirms the importance of collaborative efforts in exploring the mysteries of the cosmos.

About the Active Asteroids Project:

The Citizen Science program, Active Asteroids, is a collaborative effort between scientists and the global community, hosted on the Zooniverse online platform. Launched in partnership with NASA, the project engages volunteers in the search for rare asteroids with comet tails, uncovering previously unknown celestial phenomena. For more information, visit


Colin Orion Chandler

LINCC Frameworks Project Scientist and Postdoctoral Scholar

DiRAC Institute and the University of Washington

1 206 543 2888

About the DiRAC Institute

The University of Washington’s Institute for Data-Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology (DiRAC) brings together the diversity of expertise — from astrophysics, data science, to software engineering — needed to build the world’s most advanced datasets and algorithms, and use them to explore and understand the universe. DiRAC scientists play a major role in the construction of Rubin Observatory and the development of next-generation software tools through the LINCC program. Learn more at

DiRAC’s Annual Report 2023

The report covers DiRAC’s current impact, highlights in science and personnel, in-depth articles, a review on past and upcoming events, as well as recognizing and celebrating our community’s efforts. Explore the remarkable accomplishments at DiRAC throughout 2023.

New algorithm ensnares its first ‘potentially hazardous’ asteroid

An asteroid discovery algorithm — designed to uncover near-Earth asteroids for the
Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s upcoming 10-year survey of the night sky — has identified
its first “potentially hazardous” asteroid, a term for space rocks in Earth’s vicinity that
scientists like to keep an eye on.

The roughly 600-foot-long asteroid, designated 2022
SF289, was discovered during a test drive of the algorithm with the ATLAS survey in
Hawaii. Finding 2022 SF289, which poses no risk to Earth for the foreseeable future,
confirms that the next-generation algorithm, known as HelioLinc3D, can identify near-
Earth asteroids with fewer and more dispersed observations than required by today’s

Read full article here.

Support the Astronomy Department Student Programs on Husky Giving Day

The Astronomy Department will be taking part in Husky Giving Day, an annual philanthropy event at the University of Washington! We are trying to raise funds to support research programs for our undergraduate and graduate students. Watch the video and learn why engaging early in the research in a students career can have a profound impact on their career.

Program for UW Undergraduate Students

Successfully piloted in 2022, the “Undergraduate Summer Research Prize” for UW undergrads will continue in 2023.

The program will award $3500 to UW undergraduate students working on summer research projects with faculty and staff at UW Astronomy. We are excited to continue this program – Thank you to our ongoing supporters!

Program for UW Graduate Students

Getting engaged with research early in graduate school can fundamentally change a graduate student’s career direction.

This year we are launching a new initiative called the  “Jumpstart Research Fellowship”. This program will award $3500 to incoming UW graduate students to enable them to start their research the summer before they arrive at UW – allowing students to focus on research prior to taking classes in the fall.

Such programs have been shown to accelerate and deepen students’ engagement in research, particularly for students from non-traditional pathways.

The seven-year photobomb: Distant star’s dimming was likely a ‘dusty’ companion getting in the way, astronomers say

UW doctoral student Anastasios “Andy” Tzanidakis announced the discovery of a rare type of binary star system. Tzanidakis and Dr. James Davenport, a UW research assistant professor of astronomy and associate director of the DiRAC Institute, were investigating why the star Gaia17bpp had gradually brightened over a 2 1/2-year period. In some investigative follow-up work, which involved examining decades of observations of Gaia17bpp, they determined that the star itself was not changing. Instead, according to the data, Gaia17bpp is likely part of a rare type of binary star system, and its apparent brightening was the end a years-long eclipse by a stellar companion that is — quite simply — dusty. Gaia17bpp’s likely companion is slow-moving and surrounded by a disk of unknown material.

Catching this eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and indicates that this type of system may be more common than previously known. If so, scientists will need to develop theories of how such an unusual stellar pairing arose – because right now, that’s not easy to do.

Here is a link to the full story:

Astronomy on Tap is Back

Join DiRAC’s research team, Meredith Rawls and Jim Davenport, as Astronomy on Tap returns to its original location in the newly opened Bickersons Brewhouse in Ballard on May 25th at 8pm.

UW Space Dialogue with Meredith Rawls

Astronomy, satellites, and the future of our sky

Join us Thursday, May 5th at Noon PDT on Zoom

We are witnessing a new era as skies fill with thousands of low-Earth-orbit satellites that reflect sunlight. Observational astronomy at all wavelengths is increasingly affected, and so is the shared human experience of the night sky. For optical ground-based astronomy, the impacts of satellites are worst for large wide-field facilities. One urgent example is Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will begin a ten-year sky survey in 2024. I will discuss how satellite streaks can impede discovery, and share recent studies that aim to better quantify this. Finally, I will describe the work underway by a dedicated international team to understand, disseminate, and mitigate the impacts across the electromagnetic spectrum for increasingly broad groups of stakeholders.

Meredith Rawls is a research scientist in the Department of Astronomy and DiRAC Institute at UW. She writes software and data pipelines to handle terabytes of nightly images from Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time, which will produce the highest resolution movie of the night sky ever made. Her background is in stellar astrophysics, and she earned her PhD from New Mexico State University. Lately she studies the plethora of newly-launched commercial satellites in the hopes observers worldwide don’t lose the sky. She has served on and chaired working groups and coauthored reports for numerous astronomy workshops on satellite constellations, and she is spearheading the SatHub initiative at the new International Astronomical Union Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference.