I want to find a comet...

I was reading an older (1965) popular-science paperback book by Isaac Asimov, Of Time, Space, and Other Things, wherein he writes:

Well, I thought, is that so? First of all, is discovering comets really that run-of-the-mill? Is it’s not so much a question of if a comet will be discovered, but who will discover it first?

And second, and more importantly, if I decided to invest in a telescope and spend my evening and pre-dawn hours trying to discover a comet, is there some systematic scheme for doing so?

I wouldn’t say run-of-the-mill, but I’d say a fair number of comets are discovered by amateurs. I’m pretty sure Hale & Bopp were amateurs, as were Shoemaker & Levy. The fact that Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter tells me that Shoemaker & Levy had discovered 8 prior.

As to how you do it: I dunno. Point your telescope at a specific point in the sky and wait for something unusual to show up.

There’s an outfit on the web that sells at-home observatories (complete with the little bubble that you see in university observatories). The cheapo model starts at about $6,000. Sorry, I don’t remember the address.

A comet is one of the few things that an amateur astronomer can discover with a decent telescope and attached camera. What you do is take photographs on two successive nights of the same region of space. (It helps to live in a dry climate where the conditions will likely be good two nights in a row). If any object moves relative to the background stars from one night to the next, it might be a comet (or an asteroid). Then you look in a database of known comets and asteroids. If it’s not in there, you might be the discoverer. For more information, see http://www.pconline.com/~harincar/notebook/resources/online.html

The key point here is that even though it’s not too tough to discover a comet, you’ll probably not discover a comet that anyone gives a durn about. Yes, Shoemaker and Levy discovered eight others together. Ever hear of any of them?

Sky & Telescope has a good on-line site describing comets and photography:

Here’s another good site, hosted by NASA:

Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy are all professional astronomers, so they have better tools than many of the amateurs. Specifically, Mt. Palomar. They discovered this one in March, 1993 but the significant prediction was that it would hit Jupiter. Many people ridiculed them for the prediction, but of course the comet did in July, 1993.

The sky’s a big place, so amateurs often discover comets.

Thanks for your replies; I’m going to follow a couple of links after I post this quick note. So:

  1. Comets are a dime a dozen, and finding one (unless it’s going to do something spectacular) isn’t that big a deal, and
  2. The best way to find a comet is still to gaze at some patch of clear sky on consecutive nights and look for something that both moves and is not a previously documented object.

My follow up question:

I’d suspect that one patch of sky might be better than others. I understand that comets don’t necessarily travel in the ecliptic plane, but are there still better places to seek comets than others?

And, on second thought, I don’t think I’ll take up comet-hunting as a hobby… but now I’m just curious!

Comets aren’t exactly a dime a dozen; it’s a great matter of pride when someone finds one. But there are dozens discovered every year. I believe that I’d read once that there’s a society of comet-hunters, though I don’t know what it’s called.

Pantellerite: please note bibliophage’s comment – you’ll need a camera attached to that telescope. You’ll be looking for fuzzy objects in the night sky, the blurring indicating rapid movement. In most cases the film is cooled by dry ice to maximize collection of the faint light.

There’s an excellent interview with Carolyn Shoemaker here that explains her strategy for seeking comets and a number of other items (telling a near-earth asteroid from a comet):

You can find several excellent on-line tributes to Eugene Shoemaker with a simple Google search. You may also be aware that the NEAR asteroid spacecraft was named NEAR Shoemaker – the one that they recently landed gently on the asteroid.

I had wondered if Carolyn & Eugene had found any more comets before his death in a car accident in 1997 on a remote Australian road. Apparently they had not, though Shoemaker-Levy 9 was spectacular.

For his part, David Levy has at least 21 comets.

It’s a fascinating area. If I didn’t live in Seattle I’d probably put in a backyard observatory!

Discovering new comets & asteroids is within reach for dedicated amateur astronomers. It ain’t easy though. New comets can be discovered with a telescope alone (tougher for asteroids). A charged-couple device (CCD) camera makes it easier.

Here’s an interesting log book of an amateur astronomer comet hunter with all kinds of tips & stories…

FWIW, the SOHO satellite studying the sun is discovering scads of new comets all the time (comets that we would not normally see because they are too close to the sun).

Now that I’ve followed everybody’s links, I’ve gotten the answers I was looking for, so thanks to all.

  1. You can do it easily and cheaply, but
  2. It’s long, hard work, and
  3. You’re not likely to find any comets–but at least you’ll get to check out a lot of sky!