RCHS student tracks asteroid

Abbas Zaki, a Richland Collegiate High School student, joined 35 other gifted science students at the University of Colorado at Boulder in June to research the near-earth asteroid, 2003 LS3.

Their task was to determine the orbital path of the asteroid and determine if it could collide with Earth or any of the planets in our solar system. During the 58th annual Summer Science Program, Zaki worked closely with students and learned from university professors. He met prominent speakers, such as an astronaut and a Nobel Prize physicist and used advanced mathematics and software programs.

“The most challenging part of the experience was getting our program to produce sensible figures,” Zaki said. “After 36 days of hard work (and prayers that the weather would be clear enough for observing) we finally had all our images of our asteroid and the right ascension and declination values.

“However, when we proceeded to run those numbers through our orbit determination programs, we got nonsensical numbers such as the asteroid’s semi-major axis came out to be around 10 astronomical units, a bigger semi-major axis than Jupiter! After quite a few hours of frantic debugging and re-coding, we magically got our program to work and I have never felt more relieved,” said Zaki.

His most memorable activity was a lecture by Dr. Michael Dubson on really big numbers and The Big File Cabinet. Dubson said the file cabinet would have the entire history and future of humanity stored in it! “It was absolutely mind boggling that the combinations of papers in the cabinet were finite,” said Zaki. “This astounded many of us as we struggled to consolidate our previous perception that we could have infinite stories and images but in reality we could harness all of the possibilities in a finite number.”

Zaki was able to attend the Summer Science Program through financial support from QuestBridge, a scholarship program that provides high achieving, low-income students with tools necessary to attend some of the best universities in the nation.

“RCHS students enroll in our program to set themselves apart, not just in earned college credits, but in their willingness to reach out beyond expectations. Abbas has quite literally done that. I can’t wait to hear where he lands next!” said Richland Collegiate High School Principal Craig Hinkle.

Zaki said he returned for the 2016 fall semester at Richland Collegiate High School with a greater understanding of astrophysics and the knowledge that asteroid 2003 LS3 will not collide with the Earth or any other planet for at least four million years.