Japan’s first junior high girl to find asteroid follows stargazer dad’s lead

by Atsuko Kawaguchi

Kyodo

Akiko Takahashi was recently recognized as one of the first female junior high school students in Japan to discover an asteroid.

“I never thought it would actually be an asteroid,” she said of her 2009 discovery in a recent interview. “I’m so happy.”

Takahashi, 16, is now in her second year at a high school in Kanagawa Prefecture.

She detected the asteroid as a first-year junior high school student, along with Sakura Morishita, also a junior high school student at the time, and Akiko Tanaka, then a first-year high school student.

The three had to wait until this July, however, before the International Astronomical Union formally designated the object as a new astral body.

The asteroid, which measures about 2.9 km in diameter, orbits in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter every five years and eight months. It is invisible to the naked eye.

Discovering asteroids is a game of patience. An observer needs to take photographs of the same part of the sky every 10 minutes with a telescope and compare the images on a computer to detect whether any of the stars, which appear as mere dots, is moving.

In November 2009, Takahashi and her two friends found the asteroid in the dim light of dawn during a children’s event in Okayama Prefecture organized by the Japan Spaceguard Association, which monitors potentially dangerous asteroids. Its director is Takahashi’s father.

“We were observing the sky randomly through a telescope, as we never thought we would be able to find any (asteroids), but we actually found one that looked like an asteroid,” she said.

The asteroid Takahashi jointly discovered poses no threat to Earth.

Her father, Noritsugu Takahashi, said: “Children are better (than adults) at locating moving objects. I suppose they must have good dynamic visual acuity.”

The three teenagers have been granted the right to name the asteroid and have up to 10 years to come up with an appellation.

“We have been texting each other and saying we should take time before making a decision, as it is an important matter,” Takahashi said.

Since age 5, Takahashi has followed her father, a researcher of solar eclipses, around the world for his work.

“Although my father took me to many different places, the most memorable observation for me was the moon surface patterns we saw through a telescope at our home,” she said.

She said her dream is to study planets at university, because “there are so many things in the universe that have yet to be fully understood.”