Monday, 18 June 2007

Comet discovery better than a galaxy

WHEN stargazer Rodney Austin found his first comet he shrugged it off as “just another bloody galaxy”.
The New Zealand astronomer found Comet Austin 1982 M1 (pictured) on a miserable night 25 years ago, on June 18.

With his telescope awkwardly mounted on a grass verge about 15km up a country road near the city of New Plymouth and the sky becoming increasingly hazy, Mr Austin was ready to head home.
He was making a final sweep of space, when he found something. “A fuzzy thing passed through the field and I thought ‘oh, just another bloody galaxy’.”
But when he got his low-resolution charts out, he found there was nothing marked there. He then opened his high-resolution charts, but once again found no sign of a galaxy.
With excitement rising, he headed home to his parents’ house where he battled his way through boxes stacked in his bedroom to find extensive field charts of space.
To his delight, Mr Austin found nothing marked on the documents, which meant only one thing. “It’s a comet – it can only be a comet.”
He checked comet documents to see if anyone else had found one in this area of the sky. “There wasn’t a comet within 90 degrees of it.”
Then it hit him. “It was like being punched in the stomach and I thought ‘I’ve done it, I’ve found one’. Then I thought, ‘now what do I do? It’s half-past four in the morning’.”
So he went to bed, leaving a note for his mother to wake him up because something big had happened.
“She came in and I was as white as a sheet. I sat up in bed and said ‘I found a comet’.”
Next, he got up and rang the Mt John Observatory in the South Island and told the woman on duty of his sighting. “She said ‘that’s interesting’.”
Her comment told him what he wanted to hear: “I knew I had a new comet. You see if it hadn’t been reported it was my comet.”
And it was. Three days later Comet Austin was ratified to him.
Mr Austin has found two more comets since – one in 1984 and another in 1989. The latter got a huge amount of publicity. “It was predicted to do what Comet McNaught did, but failed. If it had, I would probably still be walking on cloud nine and living on the proceeds.”

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