Despite all the fancy optical gizmos used by professional astronomers to monitor the sky, this year's Edgar Wilson Award makes it clear that amateurs are still discovering comets.
The annual award, first given in 1999 by the estate of American businessman Edgar Wilson, gives about $20,000 to amateur astronomers who find a new comet using equipment not owned by a professional observatory. In previous years the prize has usually gone to between two and six amateur individuals or groups.
This year the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), which oversees the award, is splitting the prize among three people: John Broughton (Australia), David H. Levy (US) and Terry Lovejoy (Australia).
Broughton has discovered more than 400 asteroids (including one near-Earth object) and one other comet. He found comet 2006 OF2 last September 29th with a 10-inch (0.25-meter) reflector. It is inbound to perihelion in 2008.
This award marks the 22nd comet discovery for Sky & Telescope contributing editor Levy, who lives outside Tucson, Arizona. He spotted P/2006 T1 last October 2nd with his 16-inch reflector. This periodic comet has now left the inner solar system, but it will return to pass near Earth in 2012.
Lovejoy is the first person ever to discover a comet using a digital camera. On March 15th he picked up the 10th-magnitude C/2007 E2 and just two months later he captured C/2007 K5, both sightings as part of an ongoing sky survey with his two Canon 300D and 350D cameras.