2002 comet awards announced
Posted: July 1, 2002

Want some quick money in these days of WorldCom and Enron? Go and find a comet! An annual award of several thousand dollars for discoveries of comets by amateur astronomers has just been announced for the fourth consecutive year.

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has announced the recipients of the 2002 Edgar Wilson Award for the discovery of comets by amateurs during the calendar year ending June 10. The award was set aside as part of the will bequeathed by the late businessman Edgar Wilson of Lexington, Kentucky, and administered by the SAO. The following seven discoverers will receive plaques and a cash award:

  • Vance Avery Petriew of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, for his visual discovery of comet P/2001 Q2 on 2001 August 18.

  • Kaoru Ikeya of Mori, Shuchi, Shizuoka, Japan, and Daqing Zhang, Kaifeng, Henan province, China, for their independent visual discoveries of comet C/2002 C1 on 2002 February 1.

  • Douglas Snyder of Palominas, Arizona, and Shigeki Murakami of Matsunoyama, Niigata, Japan, for their independent visual discoveries of comet C/2002 E2 on 2002 March 11.

  • Syogo Utsunomiya of Minami-Oguni, Aso, Kumamoto, Japan, for his visual discovery of comet C/2002 F1 on 2002 March 18.

  • William Kwong Yu Yeung of Benson, Arizona for his charge-coupled-device (CCD) electronic-camera discovery of comet P/2002 BV.

Observers Ikeya and Utsunomiya have had their names attached to comets previously. Comet C/2002 F1 was Utsunomiya's third named comet; he also won the Edgar Wilson Award in 2001 for C/2000 W1 (Utsunomiya-Jones). Ikeya became world-famous in the 1960s for a string of five comet discoveries between 1963 and 1967, with comet C/1965 S1 (Ikeya-Seki) becoming likely the brightest comet of the last century -- visible in broad daylight to the unaided eye as it skimmed closely by the sun's surface in October 1965.

At the beginning of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler thought there were more comets in the skies than there were fish in the seas. Many other people then still clung to the view of malevolent visitors bent on mischief prowling through the earth's atmosphere, whereby comets were seen as harbingers of doom, creators of earthquakes, disasters, famine, defeat in battles and deaths of kings. Going back to ancient times, the sudden appearance of comets, their enormous size, and their just-as-sudden departures raised superstitious fears wherever they were observed.

Hundreds of comets were observed and recorded before the invention of the telescope in 1609, and the number of discoveries soared when better-quality telescopes came into use in the 18th century. Armed with small instruments that pale in comparison to ones available to amateur astronomers today, the race to discover new comets and gain recognition and fame began.

Nicknamed the "Ferret of Comets" by the King of France in the 1760s, Charles Messier became one of the most famous comet hunters of all time. He just missed the recovery of Halley's comet in December 1758 at its first predicted return, but for the next fifteen years, nearly all comet discoveries were made by Messier. It was rumored that he may have been even more upset over the discovery of a comet by a rival while he was attending his dying wife than he was over her death.

Nearly two hundred years have passed since the comet discoveries of Messier. Today amateur astronomers continue to discover new comets that may bear their names for eternity. Fighting increasing light pollution and competition from sophisticated professional observatories, the challenges and rewards have become even greater. There have been numerous comet awards over the centuries, but the Wilson Award is currently the largest publicly known award.

The six visual discoveries of this past year involved four different comets and represent the most new comets discovered by visual observers since 1994. Automated CCD searches with large professional telescopes have dominated comet discovery since 1998. Utsunomiya's discovery was made with large 25x150 binoculars (having lenses with diameters of 6 inches). The other discoveries were all made with moderate-sized reflecting telescopes having mirrors with diameters ranging from 10 to 20 inches.

Yeung's discovery image was obtained on 2002 January 21, but he reported the object initially as stellar in appearance and it was given a minor-planet (rather than cometary) designation; CCD images taken by Timothy Spahr at the SAO station on Mount Hopkins in Arizona in early May showed that P/2002 BV was indeed cometary with a faint tail, and Yeung's object was announced as a comet on May 9 (IAU Circular 7896).

The brightest comet of the bunch, C/2002 C1 (Ikeya-Zhang), became a faint naked-eye object this past March and April for northern-hemisphere observers, and is of special interest because it is the first return of this comet to the inner solar system in 341 years, since it was last observed in 1661. Carefully made observations in February and March 1661 by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius have allowed astronomers to confirm that the two apparitions belong to the same comet, though for centuries it was speculated erroneously that the 1661 comet might be identical with a comet seen in 1532. Comet C/2002 C1 is now the comet with the longest orbital period that has been definitely seen at two or more returns to perihelion (closest approach to the sun). The famous Halley's comet orbits the sun roughly once every 76 years.

In 2001, there were only two recipients of the Award, for their independent visual discoveries of a single comet (Albert Jones of New Zealand and Syogo Utsunomiya). Of the 20 Award recipients in the first four years, twelve have been for visual discoveries, seven for discoveries from CCD images, and one for a discovery from a photograph. The countries with the most recipients so far are the United States (5), Japan (4), and Australia (4). In years when there are no eligible comet discoverers, the Award is made instead to amateur astronomers judged by the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) to have made important contributions toward observing comets or promoting an interest in the study of comets.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists organized into seven research divisions study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.

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