Ever wonder upon a star, or anything else in nature, and suspect you found something no one else has? Discovery is always a wonderful surprise that has often opened new vistas of knowledge or at least added to our catalogues of science.


 


 


Ever wonder upon a star, or anything else in nature, and suspect you found something no one else has? Discovery is always a wonderful surprise that has often opened new vistas of knowledge or at least added to our catalogues of science.

It may seem like we know it all, but be certain, we don’t, and that’s good. Perhaps even more amazing is that even a casual stargazer or dedicated amateur observer can make headlines without being a professional scientist.

Backyard enthusiasts of the night sky have discovered a vast amount of comets, asteroids, supernovae and even meteor showers. Comet discoveries have generally come about after hundreds of hours of methodically exploring the heavens at the eyepiece of a telescope. Serious hobbyists marked with a determination and patience that seems to be rarely found anymore have carefully scanned cross-sections of the sky, each sweep followed by another with the telescope swung slightly higher or lower.

Readily available star atlases feature detailed, close-up charts of sections of the sky, revealing thousands of faint stars here and there, positions of dim galaxies or wisps of cosmic cloud known as nebulae. Galaxies do not appear to the eye as bright, glowing spirals like you see pictured in magazines; rather, except for a few exceptions, they will look like fuzzy, minute pieces of that dust bunny you may have seen under your bed.

Comets, when far away from the sun, appear very much like a faint galaxy -- a dim, fuzzy spot without a tail. If you don’t know where the brighter galaxies are, you will wonder if you are seeing a comet. Most likely, it is a galaxy, but how can you be sure? You will need to check your star atlas to see if a galaxy is plotted in that spot, next to those dim little stars you see in your eyepiece.

Another real good way is to very carefully note its position, perhaps by sketching a little map. Then come back later that night and look again. If you can’t find it, there are a few possibilities. A. The sky clouded up and it’s time to go to bed. B. You waited too long and the thing set below the horizon, which, unless you live on the plains of Kansas, might be a hill, tree line or your house (which can happen in Kansas, too). C. You lost it. D. The fuzzy piece of cosmic dust bunny moved away. If D is the answer, you probably have a comet! Galaxies move at colossal speeds, but because they are so incredibly far, they don’t seem to move at all. Comets are much, much closer -- in our own solar system. Unless it is really close, such as grazing the moon, however, the motion will still be relatively small, but you would likely see that it moved along in front of the stars in your eyepiece.

Many observers search with long-exposure photographs, which can be compared with “what moved.”

Discoverers of comets get the distinction of having their name officially attached, as well as catalog number. In recent years, it has been harder for amateurs to catch new comets because of automated, professional sky patrols that continually photograph the sky, as well as an unmanned solar observatory (SOHO) in space that continually studies the region next to the sun, picking up a great many of small comets that have become bright as they pass near the sun but escaped detection otherwise. Nonetheless, dedicated enthusiasts once in awhile still make discoveries.

Most comets never become very bright and go unnoticed by most people, but a few become show-stoppers, like Comet Hyakutake in 1996 or Comet Hale-Bopp in 1998, both which thrilled the world and didn’t require a telescope. Comet Holmes also was amazing when it suddenly blossomed last October.

Not that anyone is in it for the money, but there is even a monetary prize offered for comet discoveries -- the Edgar Wilson Award. Each year it divides about $20,000 among amateurs who have found new comets.

Amateur astronomers can report discoveries online at www.cfa.harvard.edu/iau/cbat.html and scroll down to “How do I report a discovery?”

Then there are false alarms. The writer hasn’t “discovered” anything in all these years, but that has never dimmed his pleasure of just enjoying the universe. One night, however, he saw a strange, diffuse, gray dash of light among the stars in the telescope. It was like no galaxy he had ever seen. At first it seemed motionless, but then it quickly shifted a bit, back and forth! It was not a comet either. It turned out to be an overhead cable strung from a utility pole, which had a white cable coiled around a black cable -- swaying in the breeze. The black one couldn’t be seen, but the little section of white cable reflected neighborhood lights and showed up as a dim “dash,” blurred because it was out of focus!

Full moon is April 20, last quarter is April 28.

Keep looking up!

Peter W. Becker is managing editor at The Wayne Independent in Honesdale, Pa. He has been an amateur astronomer since the age of 12, in 1969. He may be reached at pbecker@wayneindependent.com.