How I Found My New Comet
The prolific comet hunter recalls the story of his latest find.
The morning of October 2, 2006, was party cloudy and warm as I set up Miranda, my 16-inch f/5 Newtonian reflector, to begin my comet hunt. As other telescopes whirred nearby, taking their automated search exposures for comets, I began searching along a strip of sky that soon brought me to Saturn. Then I did a double take. About 0.6° away there was a small, fuzzy, 10th-magnitude glow. My first reaction was that it must be a ghost image of some kind. But it looked too real for that. To check, I looked through my Meade 8-inch "finderscope," which was mounted atop the 16-inch just for emergencies like this. The object appeared fainter in the 8-inch, but in exactly the same place.
Riding at the base of the 16-inch was a laptop computer that was running David Lane's Earth Centered Universe program. This program allowed me to track the telescope's position and display its field of view on the monitor in real time. I immediately was able to see that there were no bright NGC objects in the vicinity of the suspected comet.
But I've been fooled by reflections before, especially with CCD images. As dawn began, I decided on a final check. One of my survey telescopes a Meade 14-inch telescope with HyperStar coupled to a Canon digital SLR camera had just completed its morning run. I quickly aimed it at the suspect's position and took a series of exposures. I went inside the house, downloaded the images, and then displayed them on the computer screen. The images clearly showed a real, moving object. With my heart pounding with excitement, I e-mailed a quick report to Dan Green of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, notifying him of the possible new comet. But I still wasn't 100% sure.
So I called my friend Tom Glinos in Ontario, Canada, whose remotely operated 25½-inch RC Optical Systems telescope at Jarnac Observatory has been doing yeoman's work in finding asteroids over the last two years. "I instinctively knew something interesting had happened," Glinos recalls. "We have checked each other's 'discoveries' in the past, and this case was no different. David and I carefully examined his images, trying to eliminate any possible optical illusions or misidentifications. In the end we were left with a comet with no visible tail."
Later in the day, a simple message that gave the object's position and brightness went up quietly on the Minor Planet Center's NEO (Near-Earth Object) Confirmation Page. This way, observers around the world could try to confirm the new comet before it rose again for me. Richard Miles, president of the British Astronomical Association, was among the first observers. "I was totally fooled by Saturn, being less than a degree away," he notes. "I first thought [the object] might have been confused with one of Saturn's satellites. Then I mistook the glow seeping into the side of the [CCD] frame as being Saturn itself. In fact, it was the new comet."
The following morning, October 3rd, the comet had moved enough away from Saturn to shine beautifully by itself. Later that day Dan Green issued IAU Circular 8757, which announced Comet Levy, C/2006 T1, to the rest of the world. After a hectic and wondrous 24 hours, helped by fellow observers in Hungary, Italy, the UK, and the US, I finally enjoyed my first uninterrupted look at this new cosmic interloper.