Two Amateur Astronomers from the Pacific Rim to Share the 2001 Edgar Wilson Award for the Discovery of Comets
28 Aug 2001
(Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Public Affairs Department
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Brian Marsden, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
60 Garden Street Cambridge, MA 02138
Dan Green, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
60 Garden Street Cambridge, MA 02138
Release No.: 01-09
Cambridge, MA - To some observers, comets are the dirty snowballs of the solar system that only occasionally appear in the nighttime sky. To others, comets are the "white whales" of the vast cosmic ocean. Recently, two amateur astronomers separated by six thousand miles of a more familiar ocean spotted the same cosmic whale, comet C/2000 W1 (Utsunomiya-Jones). For their outstanding efforts they will share the "2001 Edgar Wilson Award for the discovery of comets."
Established in 1998 and administered by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Edgar Wilson Award promotes amateur cometary astronomy by rewarding individual discoverers with a cash prize that could reach $20,000.
Few amateur astronomers regularly have the necessary time and skies free from light pollution needed to discover new comets. Today, the receipt of the Edgar Wilson award is especially notable because amateur astronomers face fierce competition from professionals working with programs such as the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project and other CCD surveys.
The Wilson Award is funded by the Edgar Wilson Charitable Trust, established upon the death in 1976 of the successful Lexington, Kentucky businessman who was quite interested in promoting amateur astronomy. Bank One serves as the Trustee.
This year's award is to be shared by comet hunter Syogo Utsunomiya of Kumamoto, Japan, and Albert Jones, the dedicated variable star observer from Nelson, New Zealand. Their co-discovery of comet C/2000 W1 is an example of astronomical and international coordination. On the night of November 18, 2000, Syogo Utsunomiya was observing the southern constellation of Vela with his 25x100mm binoculars when he spotted a fast-moving comet low on his southern horizon. Utsunomiya dutifully noted the comet to be approximately 5 arcmin across, magnitude 8.5 and moving rapidly to the southeast. The fast moving comet would soon be unobservable from his position. (The moon's apparent size is about 30 arcmin across and objects about magnitude 8.5 require at least small telescopes and binoculars.)
On November 19, after confirming his observation, Utsunomiya relayed his report to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Soon afterwards, a description of the comet and its predicted position was sent from CBAT to a few other observers for confirmation. Despite the efforts of those astronomers, Utsunomiya's fast-moving comet went unnoticed for almost another week. Then in the early morning on November 26, the 80-year-old eagle-eyed Jones spotted what he recognized as a comet with his 78-mm refractor, not knowing it to be one that Utsunomiya had seen a week earlier further to the north. Jones had chanced upon the comet as he was quickly moving from star to star or "star hopping." He was actually trying to observe the variable star T Apodis before the approaching morning sun ruined the sky. Jones' luck that morning would earn him two more distinctions: he is now the oldest person to have discovered a comet, and he has set the record for the longest time interval between discovering comets at 54 years!
At the CBAT, Brian Marsden and Daniel Green both realized quickly that Jones' comet was likely to be the same as Utsunomiya's comet, even though only very rough visual positions were available from both observers. Under this assumption, Green and Marsden contacted additional observers in the southern hemisphere with a revised ephemeris predicting where the presumed single comet might be. An answer quickly came from the New Zealand astronomer Alan Gilmore at Mount John University Observatory on the South Island with accurate positions obtained with a CCD camera attached to a telescope with a 1-meter mirror: the comet was indeed present where it should be if Utsunomiya's and Jones' comets were one and the same. The comet was now secure, and the CBAT issued its IAU Circular No. 7526 on November 26 to tell the world, as is its customary practice with new comets, novae, supernovae, and other interesting new "transient" astronomical objects in its role as the worldwide clearinghouse for announcing such discoveries. The computed orbital elements issued by the CBAT showed that the comet would come closest to the sun exactly a month later at a distance from the sun of about 30 million miles.
The SAO is a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and its headquarters are located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. About thirty-three other comets discovered with ground-based telescopes were announced by the CBAT in the year encompassing the 2001 Wilson Award, but only one amateur- discovered comet, C/2000 W1, was eligible for the award.
In 1999, seven amateur astronomers received Wilson Awards; in 2000 there were four. This year's Wilson Award clearly demonstrates how individual amateur astronomers can continue contribute to our understanding of the solar system.