Miguel Rojas is 13 years old and lives in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Courtesy family of Miguel Rojas
Miguel Rojas is one of those who reads books on physics and black holes.
He loves studying about the solar system, galaxies and the Universe. And he has learned so much that one day he began to analyze spatial images knowing what he was looking for.
And as often happens to those who know what, where and how to look, he found what he longed for most: a new asteroid. One that no one else had seen before.
Miguel, at only 13 years old, can already say that he understands things that for others are mere science fiction.
He studied the first year of high school at the Rioclaro school in Barquisimeto, the capital of the Lara state in western Venezuela. He says he does not have a favorite subject, although he likes mathematics, biology, languages and geography.
But it is space science what you are passionate about.
And just as he knows how to identify asteroids, he is very clear about his goal: to be a space engineer.
“All my life I have been interested in space. From a very young age ”, he comments in conversation with BBC Mundo. “My first books were the ones that prompted me to learn more about the world of astronomy and science.”
It does not refer to the books that are often read by young people his age, such as Harry Potter. He proudly displays a series of large and heavy volumes that he has in his room: an Atlas of Space (the first he had, the “most basic”), books written by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking; others by Kip Thorne, considered an eminence in the field.
All the books deal with complex issues that help scientists to know the laws of the Universe: why is time curved? What are wormholes? Is time travel possible?
So discovering an asteroid for him was part of his natural learning process. He sees it as the first step of a staircase that will take him, not only to learn more about space, but directly to work at NASA.
Getting started with YouTube
The first thing that Mary Ramos, Miguel’s mother, highlights is her son’s unusual interest in complex issues about space since he was very young.
“It all started by watching YouTube videos. He himself, when he was 5 or 6 years old, would watch the videos and tell me ‘Mom, I want one of those books,’ “says Ramos.
But if there is something that served as an impulse, it was Stephen Hawking.
But if it is already very difficult to get Hawking’s books in Venezuela, it was much more so in little Barquisimeto. So their parents had to search for them outside the country.
“And when I see the books I wonder how I did to understand. And yet he read them; and since I didn’t understand it, I read it again, I looked for more videos on YouTube, ”says the mother.
“It was easy for him. And he even explained it to me, I don’t know about it ”.
But to discover an asteroid, Miguel had to go from theory to practice.
In Barquisimeto, another young Venezuelan who, like him, had discovered an asteroid in 2012. And now he was organizing asteroid search campaigns through an organization called Orbita CI 130 in conjunction with the Larense Astronomy Association. His name is David Oviedo, or as Miguel calls him, “the mentor”.
“We ran into this organization and, somehow, was what Miguel was looking for“.
Órbita CI 130 is a private non-profit organization that focuses on giving advice and mentoring to Venezuelan children and adolescents with high capacities, talent and giftedness
They not only cover space sciences (as in Miguel’s case), but also other fields such as mathematics, robotics, geometry, physics, chemistry, biology and even languages, among others, explains Gerardo García, president of the Motores por la Paz Foundation, which leads to CI Orbit 130.
But Miguel did not enter already discovering asteroids. He had to start out as a listener since he was not old enough to participate in the campaign.
In November 2020, he began his search for asteroids.
How do you discover an asteroid when you are 13 years old but have no telescope at home?
Miguel tells it in minute detail.
The International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC, or the international asteroid search campaign) sent him the images taken by the Pan-STARRS telescope (which in Spanish would be the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System).
One of the objectives of this telescope, located at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii, USA, is precisely detect new asteroids and any type of near-Earth object.
The campaign is sponsored by NASA, although it is not this that certifies the discovery of the asteroid but the IASC.
How do you do it?
Miguel analyzes the images with special software for which he received training. From there he goes on to write a report, describing all the objects he observed in the images.
A professional astronomer reviews the report and compares the objects found by Miguel against a database. If the astronomer confirms that the found object is new, it becomes a “preliminary discovery ”.
This is just the first step.
The discovery is then sent to different observers around the planet, who will point their telescopes at the same point in the sky.
This phase can take several months. But if in the end several agree that it is a new object, it becomes a “provisional discovery ”.
Miguel had detailed the new asteroid, which is now called 2021GG40, last April. But it was not until this December that the certificate arrived, signed by the IASC, NASA and the Institute of Astronomy of the University of Hawaii.
What is an asteroid?
NASA defines asteroids as airless rocky bodies left over from the initial formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
Although they orbit the Sun like planets, asteroids are much smaller and are concentrated mainly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, a region called “the asteroid belt.”
Asteroids can also be found in other parts of the solar system. Those that orbit the Sun following the same path of the planet (but without colliding) are known as “Trojans”.
No two asteroids are the same. They may be so large that their diameter reaches 530 kilometers; even others whose width does not exceed 10 meters.
Most asteroids are made of different types of rock, but some have clay or metals, such as nickel and iron. They differ from comets because the latter are made of ice and dust that evaporate into the comet’s tail.
Since they formed at the same time as the planets, scientists find all the information about asteroids very valuable.
There are various campaigns for the identification and tracking of near-Earth asteroids that make use of different telescopes, such as the Pan-STARRS in Hawaii.
The NASA it does not have information on any asteroids that could impact the Earth. But from time to time, the material released from asteroids can reach the planet’s atmosphere. If the fragment reaches the surface, it is known as a meteorite.
Looking to the future
Asteroid 2021GG40 is not Miguel’s only recent discovery. To his credit he has at least six other preliminary discoveries whose verdict he is still awaiting, he says.
Nor is he the only young man who has participated in asteroid exploration and identification campaigns. Orbita CI 130 accumulates a total of 12 provisional discoveries made in eight campaigns.
Miguel aims keep looking for other space objects. You already know that there are exoplanet and supernova search campaigns in which you have not yet participated, considering that you are not sufficiently prepared.
“But my goal is to continue studying and learning every day to reach those campaigns and make an important contribution. to leave my country and my status very high“, dice.
“This is just the beginning of a number of follow-ups, progress, history, work, dedication, perseverance, perseverance,” he says.
“I would like to work at NASA as a space engineer and make a contribution to the world, to humanity. That is my dream. I am sure and I bet a lot that science and astronomy are the future of both humanity and technology. “