|"Should that be there?"|
I have been blessed to discover five comets as an observer for Lowell Observatory. However, my fortune hasn't always been so good. In September 1996, my wife and I were vacationing at Star Hill Inn in northern New Mexico. The Inn, located in the mountains north of Las Vegas, caters to amateur astronomers. We had reservations for four days and four glorious nights of observing under pristine skies. It rained the first three nights and, needless to say, I was despondent. My dream vacation was turning out to be a nightmare.
The weather finally improved the fourth day and I was able to observe that night. I planned to make the most of it and three other guests joined me in a session that would continue into the wee hours of the morning. One of the other observers was using the Inn's 13-inch Dobsonian. He was using the large scope to explore Orion, the hunter, rising in the east. I was observing something forgettable when I heard a voice call out of the stillness, "Should that be there?" I walked over to see what was in the 13-inch. It looked like a small comet.
By now, the other observers had found their way to big Dob. We consulted charts and found no object plotted where this "comet" appeared. Our next step was to determine a position. One of the guests was using the Inn's computerized 14-inch Celestron SCT. He found the object and measured its position. The next task was to see if this object moved. Distant galaxies and nebulae do not change their positions with respect to the stars during the course of a single night. A comet does move and that is exactly what happened. Finally, we compared notes to arrive at a magnitude estimate.
All that remained was to determine if this was a known comet. The folks at Sky & Telescope magazine maintain a phone service, Skyline, which features a recorded message explaining what's currently up in the night sky. We decided to call but there was just one problem. Nobody had a phone and none of the cabins had phones. Since the possibility existed that we may have just discovered a new comet, we figured the innkeepers would not mind if we roused them at 3:00am. Feeling both nervous and excited, we hiked to their home, made our request and were allowed to make the call.
A wave of excitement washed over me as soon as the Skyline number started ringing. In just a few moments, we would know if we had made a discovery. It was one of the most exhilerating experiences of my life. Then, the recorded message voice spoke, "Comet Tabur is currently winging its way through northern Orion." We had "discovered" a known comet. C/1996 Q1, comet Tabur, was first observed on August 19, 1996, by Vello Tabur of Australia. He found the comet using an 8-inch, f/4.7 Newtonian. Comet Tabur peaked near 5th magnitude in mid-October 1997.
There was an initial feeling of disappointment. However, disappointment gave way to releif as we realized we had avoided the major embarassment of reporting the discovery of an already known comet. Later, the feeling of relief was replaced with joy. We had been given a great gift, that of knowing what it feels like to experience--even for the briefest of moments--the joy of celestial discovery. It is a joy I had the priviledge of knowing again while on staff at Lowell Observatory. Perhaps you will know that joy, if you keep observing.
Click on the below link to see my sketches and observations of Comet Tabur.
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Revised: April 15, 2006 [WDF]