More amateur comet tales.
AMATEUR COMET HUNTERS HAVE watched their traditional share of discoveries plummet in recent years owing to the tireless gaze of robots and automated sky surveys. Comets that once might have carried the names Levy, Brewington, Machholtz, or Bradfield now circle the Sun bearing acronyms. A plethora of comets named LINEAR, LONEOS, and NEAT have dominated the International Astronomical Union Circulars for the past several years. It might seem that the age of comet discoveries by amateurs was coming to an end--but not if Syogo Utsunomiya, Douglas Snyder, Shigeki Murakami, Kaoru Ikeya, Daqing Zhang, and other comet hunters have anything to say about it!
In rapid succession, three comets were discovered visually by these amateurs between February 1st and March 18th. The best so far has been the first--Ikeya-Zhang, which put on a fine show for Northern Hemisphere observers through February and March. By late March Ikeya-Zhang had achieved a peak brightness of magnitude 3.4 and had developed into a satisfying binocular sight even for city observers. This is the finest comet since the 1997 spectacle of Hale-Bopp. For some observers Ikeya-Zhang's prominent blue tail also brought back fond memories of 1996's long-tailed Comet Hyakutake.
While observers were enjoying the first visual comet discovery since Patrick L. Stonehouse of Wolverine, Michigan, discovered C/1998 H1 in April 1998, Arizona amateur Douglas Snyder and Shigeki Murakami in Niigata Prefecture, Japan, found a comet on March 11th. Although never brighter than 10th magnitude, C/2002 E2 thrilled its discoverers. Snyder, who first spotted the comet in his 20inch Dobsonian, remarked, "This is such a rare and rewarding event, and I'm still so overwhelmed at my luck in finding it."
Unbelievably, only one week later, on March 18th, Japanese observer Syogo Utsunomiya fished another comet out of the morning dawn. Dubbed C/2002 F1, it is expected to brighten to about 6th magnitude as this issue reaches readers in late April. Unfortunately, Comet Utsunomiya will not rival Ikeya-Zhang since at its brightest C/2002 F1 will be hugging the northern horizon during twilight.
Although the visual discovery of three comets in so short a time is without recent precedent, this is likely little more than a statistical glitch rather than some new return to form by amateur comet hunters. It is sobering to consider that in the five weeks separating the discoveries of Ikeya-Zhang and Snyder-Murakami, IAU Circulars announced seven more comet finds by LINEAR and LONEOS. Regardless, according to comet expert John Bortle, the days of visual comet discoveries are far from being a thing of the past. He notes, "There is a region of very significant size surrounding the Sun which the surveys never approach. So, this near-twilight region of the sky should still be a modestly fruitful area for visual comet hunters."
As these dedicated comet hunters prove, a few good comets still occasionally slip through the nets of automated sky surveys.