Guest blog: Neil Norman on Comet C/2014 Q2

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, October 9, 2014

Credit: Neil Norman
English amateur astronomer Neil Norman shares his thoughts and experience with the discovery of Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) this past August. Enjoy!

The discovery of a new comet is always an exciting time for those of us who specialize in these icy wanderers of the solar system. It is even more exciting when the discoverer is an amateur astronomer, and this is exactly what happened August 19, 2014.

We live in an age now where social media governs a large proportion of our lives. In days past, the announcement of a new comet would take weeks to reach the masses; now a person can follow the events as they occur minute by minute, hour by hour. This is what happened in my group Comet Watch that day.

At 2:30 UT, Cristovao Jacques, member of the SONEAR team and comet discoverer himself, posted in Comet Watch that an object was on the Minor Planet Center (MPC) page of comets awaiting confirmation. What made this object interesting was the initials at the beginning of the line, TLJ. It was Terry Lovejoy! Ears pricked and sleepy eyes widened. Had Terry just discovered a new comet just 11 months since his last one?

Terry captures these new discoveries from his home observatory in Brisbane, Australia. He uses a Celestron C8 fitted with a CCD camera, and his modus operandi is to sweep areas of the eastern sky before dawn and areas of western sky at sunset. By working out the right ascension (R.A.) of the Sun, he sweeps in general between ± 4 hours of the Sun’s  R.A. Next, he takes large sets of image triplets, three images per star field, and then uses software to locate any object that should move. Any object found to have moved is then inspected by Terry himself by naked eye.

Terry has used this technique with great effect. His first capture was C/2007 E2, followed shortly by C/2007 K5, an amazing achievement by anyone’s standards. The comets were nice objects that reached respectable single-digit magnitudes, but the best was yet to come four years later, C/2011 W3, a great comet and member of the Kreutz sungrazer family and the first discovered from the ground for 40 years. Another two years would pass before discovery number four, C/2013 R1, which, for a time, managed to steal some thunder from the much touted yet ill-fated ISON (C/2012 S1).

After the initial post in Comet Watch by Cristovao, an Argentinian member who provides astrometric observations to the MPC , Andres Chapman, announces he is ready to image the object to obtain further positions. Andres is an image taker of great skill. He works from his backyard on a nightly basis in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and his current set up is a Newton GSO F4 on a LXD 75. He has gone from snapping the Moon to gaining an MPC code in just four years, and to date he has submitted 834 astrometric observations. At 09:30 UT, Andres images the object of interest and notes it to be, “stellar in appearance, low on the horizon in Puppis close to NGC 2310.”

At 09:40 UT, Andres posts a “rough” image into the group; confidence for a new comet grows and congratulations pour in for Terry. Moments later, Terry actually admits that he nearly passed this object over as an asteroid, but high declination and its brightness (15) made him suspicious . A later image Terry obtained showed slight coma and tail features.

The confidence within the group is gaining momentum by the minute. People speculate, cross fingers, and hope that if it is a new comet, it will be a good one.

At 11:45 UT, a member posts a preliminary orbit that an independent source has released, perihelion was set for September 7, with perigee coming shortly after. It amazes me that this can be achieved so quickly, but it is exciting that we could have a nice comet to view within a couple of months time, but this excitement must be tempered because (1) it has not yet been officially confirmed, and (2) it could be a returning previously known comet.

Another two hours pass, another new orbit is posted with perihelion now set for early December and a perigee for November.

We wait and wait. Congratulations still come in as people from all over the world join in the thread. We keep checking the MPC pages  . . . nothing! It is nail-biting stuff! When you know the person involved who has hopefully discovered a new comet, you really hope that he has captured a comet from under the noses of the big guns.

Then at 21:30 UT, the object is removed from the Minor Planet Center page — is it a new comet? Five minutes pass, then Cristovao posts that the object is a comet and has been officially designated C/2014 Q2.

A huge sigh of relieve passes over the group. The process feels like it has lasted for days but in reality has lasted 17 hours from start to finish. Cristovao then posts an initial orbit with perihelion now for February 15 at 1.7 AU. As I write this, the orbit is still uncertain by 10 days.

It is amazing that this roller coaster ride can play out in such a short time, with every emotion under the Sun.

Sure, social media has its faults, but when it all comes together, it comes together!

Follow David J. Eicher on Twitter.

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