A tribute to comet hunters

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, November 04, 2013

Recently, Amar A. Sharma, who works at the Nikaya Observatory in Bangalore, India, sent in some material we thought would be perfect for a guest blog — especially with the perihelion of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) right around the corner.

The author describes himself as someone who has long possessed an unquenched aspiration to discover comets, and he envisions someday narrating his own discovery stories. He prepared this blog using excerpts from his upcoming large compilation — a biography on worldwide comet hunters and discoverers.


Indefatigable: A tribute to comet hunters — past and present

Kazimeiras Cernis of Lithuania observing through his 48-cm reflector at Maidanak Observatory, Uzbekistan. Now he is an amateur-turned-professional astronomer with Vilnius University. He has also discovered many SOHO comets using online images from the spacecraft. // Dr. Kazimeiras Cernis

As the curtain of day dissolves into the dark of night, a thimbleful of souls heads out each dusk and dawn. The fading of twilight, which for the civilized world marks retirement from the day's business, brings another night flooded with renewed energy, encouragement, and hope for a sect called “comet hunters.” They are ready to peer through telescopes and binoculars with a desire to catch a new incoming celestial interloper – a comet – before anyone else in the world does.

Comet hunters epitomize faith, patience, determination, and stamina at an unsurpassed level; these attributes surpass those in many other areas of astronomy. Thousands of hours over hundreds of lonely nights are spent trying to find an unpredictable member of the sky – a passing comet. And the rewards are well worth the effort.

For them the destination does not matter, because the journey is just as beautiful! The legendary Japanese comet hunter Minoru Honda once advised a young aspiring (and later successful) Japanese comet hunter Kaoru Ikeya, “If you are going to hunt for comets in aim of discovering one, do not hunt at all.” Such subtlety is the essence of a true comet hunter’s life. For someone like Honda, comet hunting must have been about the harmony of experiencing countless moments under the night sky and seeking glimpses of celestial wonders like clusters, nebulae, stars, and galaxies as he simply traversed the sky in pursuit of comets.

Every comet hunter has reasons that lured them in that direction. It could be an awesome sight of some great comets, or inspiration derived from senior comet hunters and their hard-earned discoveries, or even no real reason but an instinctive bond toward comets. Variable-star expert Leslie Peltier once advised, “To find a comet, keep looking.” And for comet discoverer Lewis Swift, it was the motto, “One cannot discover comets lying in bed.”

One major incentive for comet hunters is that, by convention, the comet’s name includes the discoverer’s surname. If the comet turns out to be periodic in nature, every time it revisits Earth future generations can witness the same flying iceball their predecessors saw, possibly even named after one of their own ancestors!

Whether it’s a planned discovery or an accidental one, and whether the discoverer is a dedicated comet hunter, an amateur astronomer, or even a layperson, the salutations still appear. Comets have a rich record of striking fear and awe from time immemorial through many of the world’s civilizations. And if your discovery happens to be in the "Great Comet" category (like Hale-Bopp or Ikeya-Seki) — those which arrive in our skies once in a decade or more and grip the attention of even non-astronomers — that is an instant etched in the history books for posterity. This is what many sky-gazers expect Comet ISON to do. We all are waiting for a great show from it — that of once-in-a-decade status, if not once-in-a-lifetime. And we already know a great deal about it. But how much do we know about its discoverers — those who have brought ISON to us?

A discovery is the reward for a comet hunter’s pursuit of the heavenly felines; felines because that’s what comet discoverer David Levy compares them to: “Comets are like cats, they both have tails and precisely do what they want.” Comet ISON, too, was a reward for two comet hunters, Artyom Novichonok from Russia and Vitali Nevski from Belarus.

Let’s look at the diversity of comet hunters and their splendid finds. (It obviously was not possible to include names of every possible comet hunter, and I regret the omissions.) The history of the sport begins with Charles Messier, the father of comet hunting. The latter part of 1700s and all of the 1800s was dominated by early members of the comet-hunting fraternity competing with each other. William Brooks, Edward Emerson Barnard, and Lewis Swift observed from the United States. So did Joel Hastings Metcalf, Robert van Arsdale, John Mellish, and Charles Perrine. From France hailed the rivals Charles Messier and Jean Louis Pons. Europe also produced Ernst Tempel, Friedrich Winnecke, Michel Giacobini, and Alphonse Borrelly. All four discovered no less than a dozen comets each. Caroline Herschel from England also dominated comet discoveries with eight new finds.

Astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere, too, were making a mark, with John Tebbutt, John Grigg, William Gale, and David Ross serving as prominent comet discoverers from the Australia–New Zealand area.

And then there was Japan. There is something frenetic about the Japanese when it comes to comet hunting. The number there who were hunting for comets in the 20th century is equivalent to the number of hunters collectively in all other countries. At least 50 Japanese individuals discovered at least one comet in the last century!

This national tradition was inspired by Minoru Honda, the father of Japanese comet hunting, followed by the likes of Tsutomu Seki and Kaoru Ikeya. It was a generation-to-generation heritage. Several later Japanese comet hunters were in turn directly influenced by Seki and Ikeya. You can find Japanese discoveries with single, double, and triple all-Japanese names. Examples are Comet Takamizawa and Comet Terasako with one Japanese discoverer, Comet Okabayashi-Honda and Comet Kudo-Fujikawa with two Japanese discoverers, and Comet Mori-Sato-Fujikawa and Comet Tago-Honda-Yamamoto with three. And Japanese discoverers sometimes shared the spotlight with co-discoverers who were not Japanese. Examples are Comet Okazaki-Levy-Rudenko and Comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková.

It is worth mentioning Japanese comet hunters on the dawn of May 1, 1968. Five of them discovered the same comet — C/1968 H1 (Tago-Honda-Yamamoto) — near the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). That said, Koichi Itagaki, another Japanese, had discovered this comet first on April 25, but he could not report it immediately.

This photograph from April 1962 (after discovery of Comet Seki-Lines), shows the young and very successful Tsutomu Seki (on the right) with his comet-hunter friend Koichi Ike. The photograph is provided courtesy of Eiji Kato with permission granted by Tsutomu Seki. // Tsutomu Seki
The pre-dawn hours of October 5, 1975, created a similar situation. Eight Japanese comet hunters individually discovered two new comets — C/1975 T1 (Mori-Sato-Fujikawa) and C/1975 T2 (Suzuki-Saigusa-Mori) — in a span of 1 hour 20 minutes between 17h50m UT and 19h10m UT! What’s more bizarre is that Hiroaki Mori was the common discoverer of these two comets, seeing them just 70 minutes apart — an unbeaten record!

The 20th century saw the Northern Hemisphere dominance in comet discoveries yield a bit to observers south of the equator. By astronomer Edgar Everhart’s count, between 1840 and 1919 only 10 out of 213 telescopic finds of long-period comets were made from south of the equator. After this, South Africa emerged to play a substantial role in comet discoveries. Of the 57 discoveries of the 20th century from South Africa, 38 were made in the 30-year period between 1920 and 1950. Noteworthy names are John Francis Skjellerup, William Reid, Jack Bennett, Michiel John Bester, Daniel du Toit, Alexander Forbes, Cyril Jackson, and Hendrik van Gent.

After the South African discoveries ebbed, the 1970s saw the emergence of another Southern Hemisphere prodigy. After witnessing the splendor of Comet Bennett in 1970, New Zealand’s William Bradfield started comet hunting at age 43 armed with a 100-year old 6-inch f/5.5 refractor (originally built by its previous owner for comet hunting). Bradfield was resolute in his intention: “OK, if Bennett, an amateur astronomer from South Africa, could find a comet that eventually turned into a spectacular object, perhaps I can find a comet too. And this is supposed to be a comet-hunting telescope. It may be rough and ready, but you don't need a chrome-plated telescope to discover a comet.” What came next was Bradfield etching his name in history as the sole discoverer of 18 comets!

New Zealand’s Rodney Austin nabbed three comets and Australia’s David Seargent nabbed one as a result of their own long hours of visual comet-hunting. In the past few years, Australia’s Terry Lovejoy is having success with his photographic comet-hunting survey.

Rodney Austin with his 8-inch Meade Schmidt-Newtonian telescope on a custom mount. He used this telescope to discover C/1989 X1 (Austin), which was predicted to become an easy naked-eye object during spring of 1990. The comet, however, did not live up to expectations. // Rodney Austin

Competing with Bradfield’s finds in the 1970s and 1980s was the American Donald Machholz, who has 11 comet finds to his credit. Machholz has spent more than 7,000 hours comet-hunting in a career spanning well over three decades. The U.S. then saw the emergence of Levy with his discoveries in the 1980s and 1990s. He currently stands at 23 comet discoveries. It was also a time of success for other American comet hunters like Howard Brewington, with five comets, and Michael Rudenko, with three. Alan Hale did spend several hours hunting for comets, and hit one jackpot — and the best one at that — that everyone remembers: Comet Hale-Bopp. Canada had Rolf Meier, who discovered four comets after spending many hours hunting.

Comet hunters can be outlandish when it comes to hunting for their passionate flying possessions. They do it from anywhere: from toilets to battlefields! Let’s look at some of them.

In 1941, the young Minoru Honda was drafted into the Japanese army and sent to northern China and Singapore. He was eccentric enough to continue comet-hunting there, however, after conjuring up a telescope from a discarded 3-inch lens while working to siphon gasoline from beat-up old cars. Honda had begun searching the southern sky for comets from the battlefield in Singapore while other soldiers were fast asleep. Because he had no star map, he knew the only way to distinguish comets from nebulae was to observe them multiple times and look for their motion. He was duly rewarded for this when he discovered a 7th-magnitude comet and the word passed out from the middle of battlefield all the way to Tokyo Observatory. This, however, turned out to be the return of the periodic Comet Grigg-Skjellerup, however, and not a new comet. Yet it was a commendable act.

In a World War II instance, Anton Weber's home in Berlin had no windows, even in the toilet, because of the bombings. While he was sitting there one clear night, he saw a diffuse object through one of the openings. This was later confirmed and announced as a comet, C/1946 K1 (Pajdušáková-Rotbart-Weber).

There are numerous other incidents we find in the world of comet hunters.

Comets gave the American Edward Emerson Barnard literally a roof to sleep under when he cashed in on the Warner Prize and its $200 five times and built a house from the funds. His “Comet House” is still known in Nashville, Tennessee.

Interestingly, there exists a British connection to discovering comets on either Christmas nights or from the home windows of the discoverer. On Christmas night 1960, Michael Philip Candy was checking out a new 5-inch short-focus refractor (a comet-seeker made for him by Horace Dall) from an upstairs window of his home in Hailsham when he discovered Comet 1961 II. Impressively, precisely 20 years later, on Christmas night 1980, Roy Panther felt it impossible to ignore an exceptionally clear sky. It was the night he would finally discover his only comet, 1980 II, after having racked up 600 comet-hunting hours spread over 699 nights through 33 years. At the time he had no telephone, so to announce his discovery he sent a written message via taxi from his home at Walgrave to Guy Hurst at Wellingborough. A few years later, in 1983, George Alcock swept up C/1983 H1 (IRAS-Araki-Alcock) after putting his wife to bed. This was from indoors through a double-glazed window at the top of the stairs, with Alcock kneeling on the floor using just 15x80 binoculars.

Modest equipment was never an excuse for comet hunters. Bradfield found his 11th comet C/1980 Y1 (Bradfield) using just 7x35 binoculars, even though it was just a 6th-magnitude fuzz. As we saw earlier, he nailed 14 discoveries out of his 18 discoveries with a 100-year-old scope. Later, when he upgraded to a 10-inch reflector, he built its telescope body from wood found in a scrap pile (which included a couple of housebricks to help with the counter-balance). This retired rocket scientist carved his niche with the simplest materials of all.

Czechoslovakia played a pivotal role during the perilous World War II decade in sponsoring the first professional visual comet-search program in history. As part of the Skalnaté Pleso atlas, five observers found 18 comets between 1946 and 1959. They were Antonín Bečvář (the founder), Antonín Mrkos, Lubor Kresák, and Ľudmila Pajdušáková with Margita Vozárová. And their equipment was nothing more than 25x100 binoculars called Somet-Binnars. Their success came from the determination to host a systematic comet-hunt program with nightly searches using multiple observers with each member spending time in shifts. Ľudmila Pajdušáková alone notched five new comets as part of the team effort.

On the other hand, clouds — an integral part of any amateur astronomer’s challenge — have also inhibited the timing of comet discoveries. Vance Petriew, who accidentally discovered a comet while pointing at the wrong star in the horn of Taurus to find the Crab Nebula at the 2001 Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in Canada, had to confirm the comet suspect the second night. He faced everything weather could offer: high winds, dark and menacing thunderclouds, and lightning, which lit up the observing site like daylight.

Comet hunters are time-tested, and age is no impediment in their pursuit. While the late Albert Jones stands to be the oldest comet discoverer with his last find in 2000 coming at age 80, Lewis Swift discovered his last comet in 1899 at age 79. Albert Jones, the respected variable-star observer — the only one who has made more than 500,000 estimates the magnitudes of variable stars — has earned the distinction of standing at the longest time span between two comet discoveries. His first came in 1946 and the second in 2000. He made these discoveries while carrying on routine variable-star observations. A whopping 54 years between comet discoveries is just one of the feats of this great soul whose invaluable contribution to the astronomy community spanned a whole seven decades.

William Bradfield’s last comet discovery in 2004 came in at age 77. George Alcock and Minoru Honda were very successful as discoverers of both comets and novae. Alcock’s last nova discovery came at age 79, while Honda’s last nova discovery came in at age 74.

The determination of comet hunters is so often apparent. It could be the gruesome cold conditions in which they have to hunt, as is evident from Tsutomu Seki’s quote, “Cold winters bothered me in investigating comets. When the temperature was -5° C, the lens of the telescope froze. After continuing my observation for over three hours at that temperature, my heart and body also became as cold as ice.”

On the other hand, the perseverance of comet hunters could be tested in the comets they missed. A classic example is Lithuania’s Kazimieras Cernis. Any faint-hearted comet hunter might think of stopping after missing out on the discovery of one or two comets, but Cernis set himself up as an example. Nine times (which accounted for 806 hours of visual comet-hunting spanning eight long years) he had near misses in claiming comets for himself. Still, he did not give up, and his total comet count now stands at three. His challenges were many: His remote observing site at Mt. Maidanak in Uzbekistan — 1,865 miles (3,000 kilometers) from home — had no good telephone connection. He also had no circulars, telegrams, or other information about the existence of recently discovered comets. Getting the word out from Mt. Maidanak to Moscow and then to Cambridge, Massachusetts … we can only leave it to our imagination how he achieved it! 

Terry Lovejoy with his 8-inch Celestron Hyperstar photographic comet hunting setup. Terry is the first person to discover a comet with a DSLR, the first to find SOHO comets outside of SOHO itself using their Internet images, and the first person to have found a Kreutz Sungrazer comet from the ground, as well as the first to have found a Kreutz Sungrazer comet from space! // Terry Lovejoy

The successful Japanese comet hunter Shigeki Murakami, too, experienced discouragement when he happened to be 3 hours and 43 minutes late in getting his discovery announced by the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. Levy finally claimed the discovery October 2, 2006. Levy was comet-hunting that dawn and happened to nail one adjacent to Saturn in Leo. There have been many such misses, but these have only added to the determination of true comet hunters.

The Donohoe Comet Medal. Photograph from the January 25, 1890, Publications of the ASP. // Astronomical Society of the Pacific

A few amateurs working in professional capacities have had a stint of comet discoveries. One example is the team of Eugene Shoemaker and Carolyn Shoemaker, teamed with Levy, which resulted in 13 discoveries titled “Shoemaker-Levy.” In turn, Carolyn Shoemaker has 32 comet discoveries to her credit. Amateurs everywhere remember the historic Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which slammed into Jupiter and gave us an unprecedented insight into the fragility of our life here on Earth.

It was also Jean Mueller, a librarian by profession, who had her breakthrough and got to work at Palomar Observatory and use the 48-inch Oschin telescope. She discovered at least 49 supernovae, 9 unusual asteroids, and 15 comets, as part of her routine sky patrols.

Today, comet hunting is a “sport” with a tradition of rewarding a discoverer. We have had the following awards from the 1800s to the present that commemorate the spirit of a comet hunter: Joseph de Lalande's prize money; Frederick VI the King of Denmark's Gold Medal; the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Vienna's Gold Medal; the Warner Safe Remedy Prizes' cash prize; the Donohoe Bronze Medal; the Astronomical Society of Japan’s Medals (only for its country's discoverers); the United States’ Tuthill Comet Award (for American discoverers, later extended to Canadians); and finally the Edgar Wilson Award, which continues today. All these reward only amateur comet discoverers, keeping their spirit and dedication in mind.

Reward or not, comet hunters hunt comets because their instincts and passion drive them to do so. This is the immovable fact about these esoteric souls.

Comet hunters’ modesty and responsibility places them away from civilization, in complete solitude. We know new ones are out there chasing these celestial visitors even now, even as the world heads to its night's comforting slumber. Well, the curtain of twilight has just dropped, and the hunt continues.

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