2009 Comet Awards Announced
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009 - 6:00am

Finding a comet can be a quick way to get some immortal fame -- and a little spending money, as well. An annual award of several thousand dollars for discoveries of comets by amateur astronomers has just been announced for five individuals in five different countries.

The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) -- operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the International Astronomical Union (IAU) -- has announced the recipients of the 2009 Edgar Wilson Award for the discovery of comets by amateurs during the calendar year ending June 11. This is the eleventh consecutive year that these Awards have been given; money for the Awards 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 five discoverers receive plaques and a cash award this year:

  • Robert E. Holmes, Jr., of Charleston, Illinois, for his discovery of comet C/2008 N1 on 2008 July 1
  • Stanislav Maticic at the Crni Vrh Observatory in Slovenia, for his discovery of comet C/2008 Q1 on 2008 Aug. 18
  • Michel Ory of Delemont, Switzerland, for his discovery of comet P/2008 Q2 on 2008 Aug. 27
  • Koichi Itagaki of Yamagata, Japan, for his discovery of comet C/2009 E1 on 2009 Mar. 14
  • Dae-am Yi of Yeongwol-kun, Gangwon-do, Korea, for his discovery of comet C/2009 F6 on 2009 Mar. 26

This is the first comet discovery for each of the five 2009 Award recipients, though Holmes, Maticic, and Ory and have each discovered minor planets (Ory has found more than four dozen asteroidal objects), and Itagaki has found many variable stars (including two Milky Way novae and more than four dozen extragalactic supernovae).

For most amateur astronomers, the historical naming of the comet for them has more meaning than any award, but the bestowment of the Edgar Wilson Award gives extra prestige and notice to their effort. Amateur comet discoverers usually put in long hours observing, with no financial aid, unlike the professional astronomers who discover most comets nowadays via surveys with large telescopes. Automated CCD searches with large professional telescopes have dominated comet discovery since 1998, so the contributions of amateurs deserve special recognition.

While there have been as many as seven Wilson Award recipients in a single year, this is the first year for five Awards to be given for discoveries using CCD cameras -- a reflection of the continuing move away from visual and photographic astronomy and into digital imaging. (Eight of the nine Wilson Awards in 2001 and 2002, for example, were given for visual comet discoveries.) During the first six years, the Edgar Wilson Awards were given for sixteen visual comet discoveries, seven via CCD camera, and one via photographic film. In the past five years, there have been only two visual discoveries but twelve by CCD camera.

This is also the first year that Wilson Awards have been given to recipients in five different countries. There have been 43 Edgar Wilson Awards to 41 individuals in sixteen countries so far. The United States leads with eleven Awards to ten different individuals, followed by Australia with ten Awards to eight different individuals, and Japan with eight Awards to seven different recipients.

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.

More than 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.

Comet discoveries are reported to, verified by, and announced by the Central Bureau, which also assigns year-and-letter designations and names. Once a comet discovery has been announced, no additional claims to discovery are permitted. An IAU committee of sixteen astronomers internationally makes deliberations when "problem" cases arise; this same committee also approves names of minor planets.

In years when there are no eligible comet discoverers, the Award is made instead to amateur astronomers judged by the CBAT to have made important contributions toward observing comets or promoting an interest in the study of comets.

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Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., 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 six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Christine PulliamPublic Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics