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Search for the Fabled Vulcanoids

Astronomers want to find all the asteroids that may be heading for an impact with Earth, so they're searching for the legendary group of asteroids called "Vulcanoids" that may be circling the sun. We can't see these asteroids, but we know they?re there because they effect Mercury's orbit and make the planet wobble. In the 19th century, astronomers thought Mercury's strange orbit must be caused by a hidden planet, which they called "Vulcan," after the Roman god of fire. Astronomers now think hundreds of space rocks, up to 20 miles in diameter, can be found between Mercury and the sun. They could be pieces of a planet that broke apart millions of years ago, and if the orbit of one of them gets deflected, it could head our way.

On September 23, Alan Stern and Dan Durda flew an F-18 above the California desert to look for Vulcanoids just before dawn, when the Earth blocks the light of the sun from the innermost part of the solar system. They took thousands of images with a special digital video camera. Now they?re searching through them, looking for Vulcanoids. ?(So far,) I can't give you a eureka moment answer as to whether we found anything," Durda says. The camera, originally designed for use on the space shuttle, can take images of objects 600 times fainter than the human eye can see.

Stern, Durda and their colleagues want to fly even higher next time, using a modified spy plane. Astronomer Dick Terrell says, "We're hoping to fly to 70,000 feet in a U-2 to get up to a darker sky."

Nick Cook didn?t search for Vulcanoids?but his search for Nazi anti-gravity technology was just as fascinating. Read all about it in ?The Hunt for Zero Point,? click here.

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