Asteroids@home is a great way you can help characterise asteroids, and you (or rather your computer) can do it while you sleep.
Asteroids@home is a volunteer distributed computing project currently comprising of 30,000~ volunteers and 800+ teams. The project is directed by Josef Durech of the Astronomical Institute, Charles University in Prague, in cooperation with Radim Vančo from the CzechNationalTeam. It runs on the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) software platform and uses the power of volunteers’ computers to solve the lightcurve inversion problem for many asteroids.
The aim of the project is to derive asteroid shapes and spin. Available asteroid photometry is used for input and the results are asteroid convex shape models with the direction of the spin axis and the rotation period. The models will be published in peer-reviewed journals and then made public in the Database of Asteroid Models from Inversion Techniques (DAMIT).
Asteroids are the most numerous objects in the solar system. So far, hundreds of thousands of asteroids are known, with hundreds of new discoveries every day. although the total number of known asteroids is large, very little is known about the physical properties of individual objects. For a significant part of the population, only the size of the bodies is known. Other physical parameters (the shape, the rotation period, direction of the rotation axis,…) are known only for hundreds of objects.
Because asteroids have in general irregular shapes and they rotate, the amount of sunlight they scatter towards the observer varies with time. This variation of brightness with time is called a lightcurve. The shape of a lightcurve depends on the shape of asteroid and also on the viewing and illumination geometry. If a sufficient number of lightcurves observed under various geometries is collected, a unique physical model of the asteroid can be reconstucted by the lightcurve inversion method.
The project Asteroids@home was started with the aim to significantly enlarge our knowledge of physical properties of asteroids. The BOINC application uses photometric measurements of asteroids observed by professional big all-sky surveys as well as ‘backyard’ astronomers. The data is processed using the lightcurve inversion method and a 3D shape model of an asteroid together with the rotation period and the direction of the spin axis are derived.