Astronomers find Albert the long-lost asteroid

Orbit miscalculation put them off track for years

May 14, 2000|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Poor Albert. For 89 years, Albert has been lost - in space.

The 2-mile-wide asteroid was discovered in 1911, but when later generations of astronomers looked for it, it wasn't where it was supposed to be.

Of the 14,788 asteroids that have been found, numbered and plotted for two centuries, a handful have gotten lost. All were rediscovered, except for Albert 719."Let's say it would have been in the cold-case file by now," said Gareth Williams, the camera-shy astronomer who helped track down Albert.

When Williams was 14, he learned that 20 numbered asteroids were missing. "I said to myself, `It would be nice to recover one of these,'" he recalled.

In 1990, Williams joined the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., to which astronomers worldwide submit their findings of asteroids, comets and moons to be cataloged and shared with other scientists. As associate director, he checked and compiled charts and figures.

Discovered on Oct. 3, 1911, by an Austrian astronomer and named for an Austrian baron, the asteroid was so bright and close to Earth that scientists figured it would be easy to track.

Their calculations turned out to be a little off. Albert swung close by Earth in 1941 and 1971, but no one spotted it.

On May 1, University of Arizona Spacewatch astronomers noticed a faint object. They saw it again May 3 and May 6.

On Tuesday, Williams started putting their findings into his electronic bulletin, then stopped and said, "That looks like Albert."

Albert will pass within 27 million miles of Earth on Sept. 5 next year.

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