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Sky hunter

When I awoke at 3:20 on the morning of Friday, Aug. 27, 2004, I knew what I wanted to do and why I was getting out of bed three hours before normal.

This was a morning for comet hunting from, of all places, my back deck. This is rare, as I have a homemade observatory 100 feet from my house, and I use it for most of my comet hunting.

In it are my 10-inch reflector, with which I have found four comets, 5-inch homemade binoculars (four comets) and an unmounted 5-inch homemade refractor, sitting in the corner, (one comet).



I had used the 10-inch reflector and 5-inch binoculars for searching earlier in the month to cover much of the morning sky, now I would use a different instrument on my back deck to cover the southern sky.

The telescope for that morning’s session was a 6-inch Criterion Dynascope, one that I bought in 1968 for Christmas. It cost $200, and I paid all but $50 for it (my folks paid that).




This telescope/eyepiece combination is very comfortable to me. I had been out two mornings before, covering the first half of the area. Now I’m back for more.

After moving the American flag out of its mount on the corner of the deck and leaning against the railing in order to get it out of my view, I began at 3:35 a.m., picking up where I had left off, in the southern sky.

I looked through the eyepiece with my right eye, with an eye patch on my left, and slowly swept southward to the horizon. At the end of each sweep, I rose the telescope to the beginning position, moved it slightly east, and swept again. There are a lot of galaxies in this area, and I picked up a few. With each of these objects, all looking like faint comets, I confirmed that they were not comets by checking them against my Atlas of the Heavens charts that I had with me at the telescope.

At 4:12 I picked up a faint fuzzy object, rather small. I looked closely to see if it was a double star or a small grouping of stars that simply appeared fuzzy. It was not. I then grabbed my star map to see if there were any known galaxies or nebulae in the area. It took me a couple of minutes to determine exactly where I was on the star map. There was nothing shown on the map.

A more detailed star atlas sat in my observatory. Our dog Shadow and I went out to the observatory to bring back the “Uranometria 2000” atlas. It showed nothing. I marked the location on the map with the date and time. At this point I made a drawing of the area, showing the location of the comet in relation to the surrounding stars. If it is a comet, it should show motion in an hour’s time.

There is a chance that this could be a known comet. At any time there are a few previously discovered comets visible in the sky, perhaps this was one of them. I went to the Internet to a site which lists such comets (www.aerith.net). It showed no comets in the area.

By now it was 4:37 a.m. I had first seen the object 25 minutes ago, and I had 40 more minutes until morning twilight would interfere with my view of it.

I then went out to the observatory and uncovered the 10-inch reflector. I quickly found the location and put in an eyepiece giving 64x. I could see that the object was fuzzy, round and made a mental note of where it was in relation to the nearby stars. It seemed to me like it had moved a bit.

I then went back into the house and tried to wake up the family. My wife at first did not want to get out of bed to look at it. I tried waking my two sons but neither wanted to get up to see it … they were too sleepy. When I went back out onto the deck my wife came out and tried to see it, but she could not make it out very well due to its faintness.

I came back into the house and began writing up the report that I would need to send to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams to get the comet confirmed and recognized. They are the clearinghouse for new comet discoveries.

Also during this time I went to a Web site to see if this part of the sky had been covered by the automated search programs. It wasn’t. During the past few years there have been an increasing number of large government sponsored telescopes patrolling then sky for asteroids and comets that may one day pose a threat to the earth.

In the course of these nightly, automated searches, these instruments pick up many of the comets that amateurs would normally find.

With the advent of such searches, many amateurs have ceased visual comet hunting. I have continued, nonstop, searching for at least an hour per month each month since I began on January 1, 1975. In the past I have done up to 553 hours of searching per year. Presently I’m doing about 100 hours of searching per year, tailoring my searches to parts of the sky most likely to yield comets. This is based on a lot of factors, including knowing where the automated searches have been.

Shortly after 5 a.m. I was out at the 10-inch telescope, making an estimate of the comet’s brightness, size and shape. It had no tail. It was also showing some movement toward the east, and perhaps, it appeared to me, slightly to the north. I later learned that it’s actual motion was 20 arcminutes (one third of a degree) per day to the east and slightly south. So in one hour’s time it had moved less than an arcminute, a very small amount. Finally, the twilight was so strong I could no longer see the comet, so I came in to report it.

ooo

Don Machholz is a Colfax resident who has discovered 10 comets. For more on his discoveries, visit http://www.geocities.com/donmachholz/ on the Web.

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What is a comet?

A comet is a relatively small extraterrestrial body made up of ice, dust and other rocky material. Comets orbit the sun like planets, but they often have a more elliptical orbit that can bring them closer to the sun. As they move closer to the sun, they heat up and release gas and dust. Solar winds blow the debris away, creating what we see as the comet’s “tail” – which can be millions of miles long.

Source: The Space Science Institute, http://www.spacescience.org

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About Comet Machholz

Officially called C/2004 Q2, Comet Machholz was discovered Aug. 27, 2004, by Colfax resident Don Machholz. It was the 10th comet discovered by Machholz, an amateur astronomer.

It was at its closest point to Earth – about 32 million miles away – on Jan. 5 and 6 of this year, but it will still be visible with the naked eye until mid-February, Machholz said. After that, he said, it will be visible with binoculars for about another month.

The comet has a green glow, which is believed to be caused by its cyanogen gas and a form of carbon, according to NASA.

To find Comet Machholz, visit http://www.geocities.com/donmachholz on the Web for a sky map.

Sources: Don Machholz, Space.com, NASA


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