NCSSM-Morganton senior Keshava Parthasarathy knows something about asteroid 2002 KL6 that most of us don’t.
Asteroid 2002 KL6 is big. About the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. And right now it is nearly 6 million miles from earth, hurtling through deep space at well over 15,000 mph. At that speed, it could travel from San Francisco to New York City in less than 12 minutes; it could reach earth from its current position in space in a little over two weeks if it was moving directly toward us.
According to NASA, 2002 KL6 is one of nearly 34,000 near-Earth asteroids of all sizes, the most recent of which was discovered on Dec. 4 of this year. And though its trajectory – sigh of relief – isn’t a straight line pointed at Earth, there’s still a risk 2002 KL6 could one day impact earth. Keshava Parthasarathy, NCSSM-Morganton 2024, has calculated its probable path, and he knows what that risk is.
This past summer, Keshava, who came to NCSSM from Weddington High School, spent six weeks in residence at UNC-Chapel Hill studying the asteroid as part of the Summer Science Program. Run by the nonprofit bearing the same name, the program cooperates with host campuses and affiliate universities across the United States to provide 11th-graders with hands-on opportunities in experimental science in genomics, biochemistry, and astrophysics.
Interested in astronomy since he was just a kid, Keshava applied to the highly competitive astrophysics program and joined 35 other students from around the country – and a few from outside the states – at UNC where they formed teams of three to conduct research into near-Earth asteroids.
Keshava found his way to NCSSM by looking beyond Earth. During a discussion in his sixth-grade classroom about NASA’s Mars rover program, his teacher, Keshava says, mentioned “a kind of niche high school called the North Carolina School of Science and Math” where students did advanced work on the kinds of systems and physics that allowed for travel to other planets.
“So ever since that day,” Keshava says, “I knew what the school was, and I wanted to apply.”
For the next several years, Keshava took every math and science class he could at his middle and home high school to further explore his interest. At NCSSM, he finally gained access to the physics and astronomy courses he was so interested in, and even added data science, computer science, calculus and differential equations, and multivariable calculus to his palette because he knew he’d need a broad base of skills to be successful in the field he was pursuing.
Such an impressive transcript was quite likely helpful in helping him land a spot in the Summer Science Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was certainly helpful in conducting the actual research, which focused on the probable path 2002 KL6 would take over the next 1,000 years. Such investigations produce reams of data that have to be assembled, organized, and analyzed; a broad skill set was critical.
The research Kesheva and his colleagues conducted in the Summer Science Program was in response to a call for more information on near-Earth asteroids from the Minor Planet Center, an organization under the auspices of the International Astronomical Union that is responsible for collecting orbital information on minor planets (i.e. – an astronomical object orbiting the sun that is neither a planet nor a comet) and making it publicly available for researchers and interested observers.
You don’t just dive right into that kind of work. For several hours each day participants sat in on lectures that provided them with the background information they would need for their research, as well as the methods they would use to conduct it and evaluate their findings.
“Researching asteroids is a very, very taxing and difficult process,” Kesheva says. “The math, physics, and interdisciplinary nature of this field is so advanced. To do this research, you need to know stuff like vector calculus and relativity and quantum mechanics.”
Topping the experience was observing the asteroid through the 24-inch Perkin-Elmer reflecting telescope at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Morehead Observatory. Housed inside a dark, domed room, the telescope is connected to a computer and large monitor at a desk just feet away. Keystrokes and mouse clicks opened the dome above and rotated both the telescope and the entire platform on which it is mounted to follow the asteroid through the night sky.
2002 KL6 required some late hours and a management of expectations. The asteroid often peaked above the horizon between 1 and 3 am, and what Keshava saw was not as dramatic or detailed as observing the moon’s light-and-shadowed craters through a backyard telescope. 2002 KL6 appeared on the monitor not as a gigantic gray mass of tumbling space rock, but as a small point of light moving across a field of black. Still, Keshava was overwhelmed by the realization that he and his teammates were among very few people in the world who would ever get to observe, in real time, an asteroid moving through the sky 6 million miles away.
“It was a very surreal experience,” Keshava said. “It’s not every day that you get to sit in an observatory and look at space like that.”
Keshava is now sharing his love of astronomy and physics and aerospace engineering with his fellow students in Morganton. Not long after arriving as a junior he created the Astronomy Club where he often organizes and leads observation nights. There he worked with James Happer, a physics instructor at NCSSM-Morganton.
“The most straightforward thing about Keshava,” Happer said, “is he’s just a good-hearted, very respectful person – exceptionally so – and he’s interested in learning because he’s curious, and not constrained in his interests by whether or not he’ll get credit for it. And he wants other people to enjoy learning the way he does.”
And as for 2002 KL6 impacting earth, Keshava says there’s no need to worry. “Our team determined that there is a 75% chance that it will crash into the sun, and a very, very small chance that it will crash into Earth,” he said. “It’s good that it’s not a threat.”