Tucson astronomer makes his THIRD once-in-a-lifetime discovery

Tucson astronomer Richard Kowalski has made a once-in-a-lifteime discovery three times while...
Tucson astronomer Richard Kowalski has made a once-in-a-lifteime discovery three times while using a 60-inch telescope at the Steward Observatory. (Source: Tucson News Now)
Updated: Jun. 7, 2018 at 11:49 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Off to work he goes.

For the last 13 years, Richard Kowalski has spent three nights a week up on Mount Lemmon.

He's not there for the cookies, snow or scenery.

He spends his time with a 60-inch telescope to search the stars.

It's a somewhat technical process of buttons and levers that has become easier and more efficient to operate, ever since his specific telescope at the Steward Observatory was built in the early 1970s.

For three nights a week, under the purview of the University of Arizona and NASA, Kowalski stares off into the universe.

On Saturday, June 2, at around 2 a.m., Kowalski's spotted something on the telescope's camera. It's a fairly common occurrence that turned into an incredibly rare discovery.

"It was cool," Kowalski said, laughing at his brief three-word description of the phenomena that's as cool as it is rare.

Kowalski's job is to use the telescope to find near-Earth asteroids.

Don't be fooled: "Near-Earth" asteroids are considered anything flying within 36 million miles of the earth.

For some context, the moon is 1/4 million miles away. It takes about three days to travel from Earth to the moon.

"This telescope is the most prolific telescope in history to discover near-Earth asteroids. I'm lucky enough to have been the person who has discovered three Earth impacters. No one else in the world has done that," he said.

The asteroid he spotted Saturday morning was named "2018 LA."

It was about 6 feet wide and was 1/4 million miles away when Kowalski saw it.

It took about nine hours to travel that distance and make impact with the Earth, when it barreled through the atmosphere Saturday. The impact was caught on camera from a man in South Africa's security footage and was posted to YouTube.

"I work for the best near-Earth asteroid survey in the world," he said. "We've detected nearly half of all the known near-Earth asteroids and comets in history. The majority of those have been discovered with this telescope right here. Because of the way we approach our jobs, we have high potential of discovering these impacting asteroids."

While Kowalski can detect a whole lot from inside the telescope's dome, one thing he couldn't narrow down was the specific spot of impact.

In the past, with enough notice, impact location of other impacters has been able to be narrowed down to within a mile and impact time was timed out to specificity of life-saving seconds.

Five days after impact, "2018 LA" has not been found.

Kowalski said they discover hundreds of near-Earth asteroids every year at this site, but catching them on the telescope camera before they impact with the Earth is incredibly rare. It has only occurred three times in the last 10 years and Kowalski has witnessed them all.

So what's his secret formula?

"I have no secret," he said laughing. "I just happen to be the person sitting in the chair when the telescope is pointed at the right part of the sky. It is a team effort and I am just lucky enough to be on the right team. The winning team."

The right, winning team is comprised of about nine telescopes up at the Steward Observatory. Some of them are manned by researchers like him and others are automated.

About eight employees rotate on any given shift, Kowalski said, as research specialists monitoring the near-Earth universe.

The Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter is one of the most efficient observatories in the world because of the fortunate desert climate with typically clear skies.

"In some instances we can go several months without being clouded out," Kowalski stated.

All employees and telescopes work with one goal in mind.

We are all lucky Kowalski and his colleagues go into work and we are even luckier he's in the chair.

"Part of the job is essentially liking people," he said. "Our job is (keeping) people from being injured and killed. Potentially, not just a small number of them, but if we found something large that was going to impact Earth it would make humankind extinct. I don't want to see humans end up like dinosaurs."

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