Guest blog: Comet hunter William Bradfield dies

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, June 16, 2014

Credit: Reinder Bouma, Netherlands
The amateur astronomy community receives sad news in the form of the death of the great Australian comet hunter William Bradfield, on June 9, 2014. Our good friend Amar Sharma of the Nikaya Observatory in Bangalore, India, sent this obituary for Bradfield with material from a chapter on Bradfield he was preparing for a documentary film about comet hunting. Bradfield was born in New Zealand and discovered 18 comets; his name was very familiar to comet enthusiasts over the last 40 years.

I share Amar’s obituary here:

William Bradfield, a legendary comet hunter passed away after a long illness, leaving behind an unmatched legacy of comet discoveries.

The international astronomy community lost one of its greatest comet hunters with the passing of William Bradfield on June 9, 2014, at the age of 86. Bradfield was known not only for his 18 visual comet discoveries, but also for all 18 Comet-Bradfields only, i.e. not having a co-discovery shared with any other comet hunter — a feat unmatched in comet hunting history.

William Bradfield was born June 20, 1927, in Levin on New Zealand's North Island, and spent his early life on his father's 160-acre farm. Bradfield went on to obtain his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering with an aeronautical option at the University of New Zealand. He had already decided he wanted to get involved with rocket work. Moving to Australia from New Zealand in 1951, he was employed by the Australian government as a research scientist on rocket-propulsion systems at the Department of Defense’s Weapons Systems Research Lab near Woomera. During his career, he had met a fellow employee, Eileen, whom he married in 1957 and with whom he had three daughters, Katherine, Carol, and Jennifer. Bradfield lived in Dernancourt, a suburb of Adelaide, South Australia, since 1953, and moved to Yankalilla outside Adelaide in 1995.

Bradfield’s childhood fascination for astronomy was stimulated when he was still young, around 12 or 14. What brought him back into his astronomy life was the business of Sputniks. In 1957, when Russia launched Sputnik 1, Bradfield was among the millions of people with the Moonwatch operation.

In 1970, when he joined the Astronomical Society of South Australia (ASSA), his interest furthered. He purchased an antique (100-year-old) 6-inch f/5.5 telescope, which back then cost him $60. His inspiration toward comets came by the Great Southern Comet of 1947, next by the brightest comet of the century, Comet Ikeya-Seki of 1965. The splendor of the very bright Comet Bennett in early 1970 struck Bradfield’s desire to find a new comet. He remembers seeing Comet Bennett with the telescope and saying, "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.” He continues, "It may be rough and ready, but you don't need a chrome-plated telescope to discover a comet." So, armed with this short-focus refractor telescope, he set about doing a regular search on January 1, 1971 from his backyard. In his early days of comet hunting, Bradfield was spending more time — typically up to 200 hours per year — with additional time being spent under the clearer skies of summer.

Bradfield had found his first comet C/1972 E1 (Bradfield) from his backyard in Dernancourt after 260 hours of comet hunting. What followed next were nearly a dozen-and-a- half comets in the years 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1992, and 1995. It was only after a drought of nine years that he could snatch his final and 18th comet discovery in 2004; the 18th time William Bradfield’s name was added to a comet. It had taken him over 3,500 hours of comet hunting to place his name on the celestial interlopers. One of his most remarkable comet discoveries was that C/1980 Y1 (Bradfield) was spotted using only a 7x35 mm binocular!

In 2004, he received the Edgar Wilson Award for his discovery of C/2004 F4 (Bradfield). He was awarded with a Member of the Order of Australia in 1989 for his services to science. The Berenice Page Medal of the ASSA was awarded to Bradfield in 1981 for his contribution to the discovery and understanding of comets.

The main-belt asteroid 3430 Bradfield (1980 TF4) discovered October 9, 1980, by Carolyn S. Shoemaker at Palomar Observatory is officially dedicated to him.

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