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Out of Sight

Three high school seniors at a private boarding school in New England were credited with a significant astronomical discovery this fall without even looking through a telescope.

By analyzing images transferred over the Internet from one of the world's largest telescopes in Chile, the students at the 1,100-student Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., confirmed the existence of the 73rd Kuiper Belt Object.

That object, like the others, is icy matter flying near the planet Neptune that astronomers believe spun off during the creation of the solar system.

"You couldn't see it with the telescope we have," said Heather McCurdy, 17, one of the students on the team whose names appear in the official registry of the Kuiper Belt Objects--or KBOs--published by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Even on those pictures, the object is only about the size of a pencil's eraser, and the students needed help identifying it from their teacher, Hughes Pack.

After the students first became aware of the image Oct. 30, they spent a week tracking it and comparing its size, speed, and intensity with the 72 other KBOs that have been identified.

They sent their findings to students at Oil City (Pa.) Area High School to check their work. Both schools are in a National Science Foundation program that provides students with telescopic images over the Internet.

The Oil City students agreed with the findings. The center confirmed the discovery Nov. 18, and Ms. McCurdy and two classmates--Miriam Gustafson and George Peterson--were listed as the primary researchers who discovered the 1998 FS144. Mr. Pack, the Oil City students, and the NSF official overseeing the program are also credited.

The confirmation came just in time for Ms. McCurdy to include it on her college applications. She and her classmates are the only students who can make that claim on a college application. All the other 72 KBOs were discovered by professional astronomers.

--David J. Hoff

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Page 3

Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as Take Note

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