Madisonville, Texas, is not big sky country. Mushrooms are a major crop in the surrounding countryside, 90 miles up Interstate 45 from Houston. At Madisonville High School, a fair number of students are from low-income families and qualify for subsidized lunches.
But Madisonville is a special school. Three hundred million miles away in space is an asteroid that that has just been named for it: 269323 Madisonvillehigh.
“Small-town Madisonville found a big discovery out in the ginormous universe,” said Kaitlynn Ogg, a senior interviewed by ABC station KTRK.
To understand how a Texas high school ends up with a celestial connection, it is useful to meet Denise Rothrock, an astronomy teacher who, back in 2008, was teaching general science at the local junior high. The school was signed up for the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, a program directed by Patrick Miller of Hardin Simmons University, which sent it telescope images shot for research. Rothrock started a morning astronomy club to analyze them.
“A good program that gets middle schoolers to come in before school starts?” she said in an interview with ABC News. “That’s worth doing.”
The images that were sent to the school showed small patches of the night sky in rapid sequence, taken 15 seconds apart. They were not specifically shot for asteroid hunting, but they were useful: Compare the images to each other, and if anything in them moves from one picture to the next to the next, it may be an asteroid.
Rothrock’s students, mostly in eighth grade at the time, did, in fact, see one dot moving across the sky. They sent their results to the International Astronomical Union, which analyzed the fast-moving object at — well, the speed of science.
Now, four years later, it has confirmed that the dot is an asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. The students, as its discoverers, got to propose a name.
Several of them are now high school seniors, some with big dreams.
“I want, in the end, to be the head engineer of a satellite that goes into space,” said Libby Schmitt, a student who, according to her teacher, has applied to some big-name university engineering programs
If her applications say, “helped discover asteroid,” they may stand out.