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Amateur star-gazers aid science

October 12, 1985
comet Ikeya-Seki 196

During October and November of 1965, the comet Ikeya-Seki made a hairpin turn around the sun and treated "star-gazers" to the most spectacular celestial sight within last 20 years.

THE TERM amateur astronomer is usually used to refer to someone who has the hobby of studying the sky. It also suggests a lack of professionalism, and that makes it somewhat insulting. And the reference to star-gazing seems like a trivial name for contemplating the cosmos.

Every night, all around the world, whenever the sky is clear, there is a legion of people who set up their telescopes and make careful observations of the wonders of the universe. Most of the time they look at things that have been viewed before, but sometimes they contribute to the science of astronomy by seeing something for the first time.

Many new comets are discovered by these people. I have known only one.

I remember David Levy as a young, intense teenager, back In the late ’60s when we both were members of the Montreal Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He was one of the few people who were prepared to take this comet and nova search business seriously. It meant that each night, as part of his observing program, he would undertake to carefully sweep through specific areas of the sky, looking for the glimmer of a new star or the hazy spot of a comet. This exactng work meant that he had to become completely familiar with his areas. In addition to the chance of making a real astronomical discovery, he really enjoyed becoming this attached to the sky.

Brlef fame

There is a small reward for all of this work. If you find a comet, it will bear your name. Since most comets vanish into oblivion after afew weeks or months, the fame is brief.

Accurate observations usually mean keeping good records, even negative records. Those records can help suggest how quickly a comet is becoming brighter when one is spotted some hours after a negative report was made. When David and I went to seek our fortunes in different cities, he had accumulated about 250 hours of comet and nova reports. (A nova is a new star — actually one that is exploding.) All were negative.

At the Manitoba Planetarium, we hear about comets by receiving postcards from the International Astrophysical Union. Whenever there is a new comet, a card arrives announcing it, and providing some sparse details. Last November the IAU card for Comet Levy appeared on my desk. A couple of weeks ago, in preparation for the new planetarium program, The Comet Adventure, Planetarium Producer, Bill Peters visited David Levy. He is now associated with International Halley Watch, and is working at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory on the University of Arizona campus. Bill asked David what It felt like to find a new comet.

“I feel that my ambition to become an astronaut has been totally achieved at the moment of discovery of a comet. I feel that I have been given a gift from nature. I feel that the sky has been looking at me for 25 years and saying for most of the time ‘It’s been a pretty boring relationship. I’ve put up with all of your telescopes and everything that you’ve tried to do. But tonight, for once, you have done good, and so here is a comet for yourself.'”

David talked about his 25-year love affair with the night sky.

“I searched for 917 hours and 28 minutes (to find the comet). I like to keep a record, not just for the statistical reason of finding out how long it has been since the last time I found something cometary, but because I catalogue all the other things that the sky presents to me in a night, or a year of comet hunting.”

Personal relationship

He spoke as if he was having a personal relationship with the sky.

“The telescope is pointing at something like the moon or the Ring Nebula, and you look up at the sky and say ‘okay sky tonight we’re going to begin with the Ring Nebula.’ Well the sky comes back to you and says, ‘All right, if you want to look at the Ring Nebula, I’ll show it to you if you I can find it.'” The Ring is a bubble of gas around a star in the constellation of Lyra

“When I hunt for comets it’s a different game. I define a large area of the sky through which I want to search. As I uncover the telescope I imagine saying to the sky, ‘okay sky, it’s up to you what you want to show me. You may show me a galaxy, a red star, a cluster of stars, or some recently discovered comet. You may even show me a new comet. I don’t know what you are going to show me, but whatever it is, I want to see It.’ When the covers are taken off the telescope, and I am just about to put my eye to the eyepiece to begin my night of sweeping, I look back at that sky and say, ‘Okay sky, it’s your show. Make my night.'”

Every amateur astronomer has a different reason for looking at the sky, it is filled with so many unfathomable mysteries. AIthough David now works in the field of astronomy, I do not think that his affinity with the heavens has changed because he Is no longer an amateur.

In 1985 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.

© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press

Sky Watch - Robert Ballantyne | Winnipeg Free Press

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