Jason Olson, Deseret News
Curtis Craig, second from right, uses students to represent planets during his astronomy class at American Fork High.

AMERICAN FORK — These American Fork High School students don't think they've done anything earth-shattering.

But their astronomy teacher reminds them that discovering four asteroids is an incredible accomplishment. And it takes a lot of work.

"They are needles in a haystack," says teacher Curtis Craig.

American Fork High is one of only three high schools in the United States to participate in the "Killer Asteroid Project." It is a NASA program operated by the Astronomical Research Institute based in Charleston, Ill.

What could look better on these kids' college applications than an asteroid discovery?

They each received a plaque for their efforts.

The teens say their friends think they're joking when they say they discovered an asteroid. And it hasn't gotten them any dates.

"It is really neat, though," said Spencer Baxter, 17, a junior who helped with the project. "It will make an impact on the scientific community. I mean, we actually found something in space."

Bryce Tholl, a senior, found two asteroids. Clinton McClesky, a senior, found a third asteroid. Karlee Craig, a junior, found the fourth asteroid.

And what exactly is an asteroid? "A big chunk of rock flying through space," said Kylie Daniels, a junior. She helped with the project, which is for students in the concurrent enrollment astronomy class in conjunction with Utah Valley State College.

The students download images from the Internet that were taken by powerful telescopes at the Astronomical Research Institute observatory, which can see stars 10 million times fainter than the eye, according to Robert Holmes, a research scientist for NASA's Near Earth Object Observations Program.

"You have to have a lot of patience," Karlee Craig said.

Tholl added, "It's kind of like fishing."

Mark Roberts, a senior who helped with the project, said, "You have to stay focused."

And for anyone who doesn't understand why pinpointing an asteroid is important, a viewing of the movie "Armageddon" may be in order.

The goal is to help protect the Earth from a possible future asteroid impact, Holmes said.

"This is very important research these students are working on when you realize, only a decade ago, comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into the planet Jupiter," Holmes said. "If the earth had been the target instead of Jupiter, it would have had devastating results and none of us would be here today."

Holmes added that NASA has advanced technology to possibly alter the path of a killer asteroid and prevent it from hitting the earth.

"We just have to locate the ones that are a real threat to life on earth so NASA can take steps to prevent such a catastrophe in the future," he said.


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