DPS 35th Meeting, 1-6 September 2003
Session 36. Asteroid Dynamics II
Poster, Highlighted on, Friday, September 5, 2003, 3:30-6:00pm, Sierra Ballroom I-II

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[36.01] High-altitude searches for vulcanoids: Observations from F/A-18B aircraft

D. D. Durda, S. A. Stern (Southwest Research Institute)

We have conducted a high-altitude observing campaign to search for vulcanoids, a population of small, asteroid-like bodies hypothesized to reside in the dynamically stable region interior to Mercury’s orbit (i.e., orbits with aphelia <0.21 AU). This airborne search campaign utilized our versatile and highly capable SWUIS-A (Southwest Universal Imaging System - Airborne) instrument flown with SwRI flight astronomers to an altitude of 49,000 ft MSL aboard NASA F/A-18B aircraft in order to obtain darker twilight conditions for near-Sun observing than are possible from the ground. The first observing run (3 nights) was successfully completed at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center during the March/April 2002 vernal equinox observing opportunity; the second observing run (3 nights) was completed during the September 2002 autumnal equinox observing opportunity. On each of the three evening and three morning twilight flights we recorded image data covering ~250 square degrees of sky centered on the ecliptic from solar elongations of 6-18 deg. Reduction of the Mar/Apr and Sep 2002 data sets demonstrates that we are reliably detecting objects to magnitude V = 9.5-11 at ~15-20 degrees solar elongation. This is significantly fainter than the instrument would have performed from the ground and comparable to the faintest stars visible in our space-based SOHO LASCO C3 coronagraph vulcanoids search (Durda et al. 2000; Icarus 148, 312-315). The SWUIS-A instrument itself is capable of imaging objects as faint as magnitude V = 13, corresponding to vulcanoids less than 10 km across, with a sufficiently dark sky background. For reference, V = 10 corresponds to a ~18-km diameter object 1 AU from Earth and 0.15 AU from the sun with a Mercury-like geometric albedo of 14%. No vulcanoid candidates have been detected in the 49,000-ft altitude airborne observations to date.

We thank NASA research pilots Rick Searfoss, Frank Batteas, Craig Bomben, and Dana Purifoy. This research is supported by the NASA Planetary Astronomy program, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, and the National Geographic Society.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 35 #4
© 2003. The American Astronomical Soceity.