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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
An eye on the southern sky

By Brady Haran
BBC News Online


It was a still evening near the small Australian town of Yankalilla, and William Bradfield sat at a local look-out.

Peering into the eye piece of his home-made telescope, Mr Bradfield was scanning the horizon in search of a "ghost".

It had been nine years since he last found one, but the 76-year-old retired rocket scientist is not a man who gives up easily.

When he first saw the fuzzy patch, on 23 March, he carefully sketched its position and made a few notes.

When it appeared again the following night, Mr Bradfield had confirmation - he had discovered his 18th comet.

The comet is putting on a great show for space photographers

He told BBC News Online: "I guess it's just another one for the list, but it was nice to know I'm still capable."

No man alive has found more comets "the old-fashioned way", looking through a telescope with the naked eye.

Most comets - sometimes referred to as "ghosts of the Solar System" - are now found by computerised searches.

Many are discovered by the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (Neat) project or the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (Linear) project.

Comets are named after their finders, which is why so many now bear the name Near and Linear.

Mr Bradfield's latest find carries the official name C/2004 F4 (Bradfield).

Yankalilla is a holiday destination for South Australians

His discovery should see him share in the annual Edgar Wilson award, a cash prize awarded to amateur comet spotters.

Mr Bradfield says he was able to beat the automatic comet searches by focusing on the area of sky not covered by Neat and Linear.

He says: "Those searches are based in the Northern Hemisphere and can't see what I call the 'deep south'.

"I concentrate on that slice of the southern sky."

Mr Bradfield is humble about his find, but astronomy expert Paul Curnow, from the Adelaide Planetarium, speaks highly of his fellow South Australian.

He says: "Bill Bradfield has shown the world that amateur astronomers still contribute greatly to the field of astronomy.

WILLIAM 'BILL' BRADFIELD
Age: 76
Family: Wife and three daughters
Occupation: Retired rocket propulsion scientist
Awards: Order of Australia for services to astronomy

"Bill is a living legend - he is viewed upon with both awe in Australia and the world."

Comet expert Gary Kronk, who runs the "cometography" website in the United States, also speaks highly of Mr Bradfield.

He says the latest discovery "introduces (Mr Bradfield) to a whole new group of comet observers".

"I would say that he is certainly very well known among the older comet observers.

"I personally have fond memories of several of his comets which became visible in the Northern Hemisphere since the 1970s.

"Two of his comets proved to be of the short-period class (due back in 2070 and 2126)... therefore, these two comet Bradfields will possibly bring fond memories to future observers in the centuries that follow."


SEE ALSO:
Comets to put on morning sky show
20 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
Comet destroyed in stellar crash
19 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
Looking up from Down Under
22 Jan 03  |  Science/Nature


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