BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Tuesday, 29 August, 2000, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Amateur stargazer discovers doomed comet
Comet   Nasa
Comet meets fiery death in Sun's corona
An amateur astronomer has discovered a new comet - using not a back garden telescope but a multi-million pound satellite.

Michael Oates, a British observer, spotted the comet in an online image taken by the satellite-based Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (Soho). It is the 200th comet to be found using Soho.

Mr Oates is one of a growing number of part-time astronomers who use computer links to make observations that would not be possible using amateur equipment.

How to find a comet
* Link to Soho site

* Find latest image

* Watch for comet

* Report discovery

The spacecraft's primary mission is to investigate the Sun's interior and atmosphere, and the solar wind.

Space weather forecasters rely on the satellite for advance warning of solar eruptions and geomagnetic storms. The comets are a bonus.

"No one expected to find all these comets when we launched Soho nearly 5 years ago," said Doug Biesecker, a solar physicist at the Goddard Space Flight Centre.

Only comets that pass perilously close to the Sun catch Soho's attention.

The vast majority, like Soho-200, don't survive the encounter. They swoop so close to the Sun that their icy cores vaporise completely.

Most of Soho's 200 comets no longer exist - they disintegrated hours after they were discovered.

Dodging the glare

The key to spotting comets so close to the Sun is Soho's brace of coronagraphs.

A coronagraph is a device that blocks out the Sun's blinding glare so that the faint corona is visible.

Soho allows observations of Sun's corona
Coronagraph images at the Soho web site are updated every 30 minutes or so.

About once each week the photos include a faint comet that anyone can discover if they happen to be the first to look.

Soho's impressive spate of comet finds can be attributed in large part to the efforts of amateur astronomers

Soho data is freely available to anyone with an internet connection and a computer. Both real-time and archival images are accessible at the Soho web site, a popular destination for comet hunters.

"Amateurs have even taken the lead on real-time discoveries," said Dr Biesecker.

"If a comet zooms through the chronograph's field of view at 2 a.m. here at Goddard, someone in Europe is probably looking at the web site while we're asleep!"

By convention, comets discovered in Soho data are named after the spacecraft rather than the astronomer.

But for amateur comet hunters, being the first to spot a comet streaking past the Sun can be a real thrill.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

08 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Closing in on a comet
21 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Astronomer's prize catch
09 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists 'look through' the Sun
31 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Sun has strange 'spin cycle'
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories