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High flyers look for fabled asteroids near sun

By Richard Stenger (CNN)

Artistic rendering of a vulcanoid
Artistic rendering of a vulcanoid

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(CNN) -- Taking high-altitude spins in a fighter jet in the days leading up to the September equinox, scientists looked for a legendary group of asteroids that might circle the sun closer than Mercury.

The innermost region of the solar system has been the subject of considerable debate since the late 19th Century, when many astronomers concluded that perturbations in Mercury's orbit must be caused by a hidden planet, dubbed "Vulcan" after the Roman god of fire and metallurgy.

Within decades, Einstein's theory of relativity explained away the gravitational glitches, but theoretical models still indicated that perhaps hundreds of space boulders up to about 20 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter could survive between Mercury and the sun.

The possibility tantalized Alan Stern and Dan Durda of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, who last week soared to nearly 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), snapping pictures of promising space regions to find the fabled space rocks.

Vulcanoids, because of their small size and proximity to the sun, would be too faint for detection except under the most ideal viewing conditions.

Stern and Durda timed their stratospheric runs in an F-18 to just before dawn, when the Earth blocks the obliterating light of the sun from the innermost part of the solar system.

Moreover, they took to the skies as close as they could to the September 23 equinox, when the positional relationship of the Earth and sun offers the best viewing opportunities.

Over the following months, they will sift through hundreds of thousands of images to look for evidence of the asteroids.

"Everything went well. The data looks good [but] the actual full reduction of data will take many weeks. I can't give you a eureka moment answer as to whether we found anything," Durda said.

No vulcanoids turned up after a similar search around the March equinox. But Stern and Durda's latest expedition above the California desert could prove more productive, considering that their specialized digital video camera was equipped with a more powerful lens.

"It can detect objects roughly five times fainter than in the spring," said Alan Brown, a spokesman at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California, which hosted the aerial experiment.

The camera, originally designed by the SwRI for use on the space shuttle, can take images of objects as many as 600 times fainter than what the unaided human eye can see.

Stern, Durda and colleagues would eventually like to take their search even higher, looking for the fabled drifters in a modified spy plane.

"We're hoping to fly to 70,000 feet (21,000 meters) in a U-2 to get up to a darker sky," said SwRI astronomer Dick Terrell.

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