At Kirtland AFB, searching the heavens for 'the little guys'

By RYAN BOETEL | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: February 8, 2021

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — Using a once-classified, cutting-edge telescope to scour the heavens, Jack Drummond studies "the little guys in our solar system."

An astronomer at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, Drummond has made a career out of studying small asteroids — and the even smaller moons that orbit them.

Last month, Drummond and his team published an article in the Icarus International Journal of Solar System Studies about the 3-mile-wide moon Olympias, which orbits an asteroid called Roxane.

Drummond was one of the astronomers who discovered the moon in 2009, and the paper relies on multiple observations over a decade or so.

Drummond's research has taken an ironic path. In 1987, when he was a researcher at the University of Arizona, he published a paper that explained why it was impossible for asteroids to have their own moons orbiting them.

But he said his theory was proved wrong four years later, when the Galileo spacecraft on its way to Jupiter recorded a small asteroid with its own moon.

"At that time, there were lots of reports of possible moons from asteroids going in front of stars and many reports ... of shadows. But they were never confirmed," Drummond said in an interview. "The Galileo spacecraft opened up the floodgates."

Drummond has worked at Kirtland since 1991. He received his Ph.D. from New Mexico State University and started at Kirtland after adaptive optics technology was declassified. Adaptive optics had been a government secret for two decades prior, he said.

The technology, Drummond says, "untwinkles the stars and gets down to the resolution produced by the telescope."

The result is a much clearer portrait of celestial bodies.

"Up until then, all asteroids were points of light," he said. "Suddenly, you could see how big asteroids are."

Drummond now works at Kirtland as a contractor for Leidos, an engineering company. He previously worked on the Air Force base as a government civil servant.

Col. Peter Norton, the Space Electro-Optics division chief, said the telescope crew and researchers at the SOR have come to rely on Drummond's expertise.

"You can engage him in a fruitful conversation on almost any subject — he is a great colleague to have on the SOR team," he said.

Drummond said studying moons around small asteroids has all sorts of real-world applications.

For the military, the science can make the space near Earth safer. The SOR is an Air Force program that is transitioning to the Space Force.

Drummond says his research can help the military, which has concerns of possible collisions between satellites or other objects in near-Earth space.

"The reason we even look at the asteroids at the SOR is because they are a good proxy for manmade satellite observations," Drummond said. "Nobody wants to be near each other's satellites. We can't tell two satellites to get together. ... Instead, we look at asteroids and their moons. It's a perfect analogy, a perfect proxy."

But the research is also valuable to astronomers.

When an asteroid and its moon are discovered and their orbits mapped out, it's only a matter of using the laws of physics to find their mass and volume. From those measurements, scientists can figure out what the asteroid is made of.

"My personal prediction is that in 500 years most of our resources will come from the asteroid belt. We're going to be going and mining them, and so we need to know what they're made of," Drummond said. "And if a near-Earth asteroid is going to hit the Uarth, is it going to be soft and flaky or is it going to be hard and metallic? So we need to study all these guys."

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