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Comet Discovered at Farpoint!

       Friday morning, December 10th, 1999, NEKAAL members Gary Hug and Graham Bell discovered a comet.  As far as we have been able to determine, this is the first comet ever discovered from a site in Kansas. The following is written by Gary, describing the discovery process, and the hoopla afterwards.

Picture #1   Picture #2   Picture #3

1998 RX60 is an asteroid that I had picked up last September (1998). The initial 30 days of data was all that was reported during the first recorded opposition of this asteroid and it was once again coming to opposition In January 2000. This would be our first asteroid picked up through two oppositions. But a funny thing happened on the way to the asteroid.

Without having enough images to blink, we usually judge the first few images on their sharpness of focus and position according to TheSky display centering on the object. It was during this time Graham and I noticed an object appearing somewhat fuzzier than the rest . Now sometimes some stars (I imagine because of their spectral color) appears softer. Plus Images of objects at 19th to 20th magnitude show many distant galaxies; nearly one or two in every other field outside the Milky Way areas, so our excitement over a galactic appearing 19th mag fuzzball was under-whelming. The third image allows definitive detection, (we call this the motion-killer image). Blinking all three images did show a distinctly although faint nebulous object moving slowly to the north-west. While relatively focused we tried to improve the images by ‘touching it up’ with the scopes’ focusing knob and continued taking more 6 min integrations. By now we were starting to raise our hopes. Each image added a little more confirmation that this was indeed a comet.

It was time for Graham to get on the Internet and check to see if there were any known comets in the area. The report came back from the MPC ‘Checker’ , "No Known Objects " for that time and position. Now our excitement was building quickly. Is this a real comet and unknown? The object was still very faint; above the background noise, but not by much. There was still a lot of time before morning twilight and we decided to increase the exposure time as the comet was moving slowly enough so that the motion wouldn’t smear the image over many pixels. We already had enough images for astrometric analysis, so I increased the integrations to 10 minutes and eventually to 20 minutes where a weak tail 10 to 15 arc-secs long became evident. Graham, in the meantime had started running CAA, the astrometry program and was preparing to send the data to the MPC labeled "Possible New Comet". I continued taking images and noticed two other probable asteroids in the field ( one of which appeared to be 1998 RX60), until morning twilight was evident on the images. Graham took the remaining images home to run analysis and send to the MPC. We closed up Farpoint and headed for home very tired but excited. I checked to see if the MPC had already put the object on the NEO Confirmation Page by the time I arrived home, but nothing was listed as of yet. I was very tired after being up for 26 straight hours and after a quick login to the MPC NEO Confirmation Page went to bed. I woke about 10:00 am realizing I didn’t have near enough sleep and did another check on the NEOCP, and there big as life was FPC001, a bit of a departure from our normal FPOXXX numbering system, (Grahams suggestion). At this point I was more relaxed and felt secure by the time I woke back up sometime later in the afternoon we would soon be hearing back from the MPC. It can now be told the our temporary designation was coded to mean Farpoint Comet 001; we were that sure of it being a comet. The MPC did not want to bias observers before their observations and let them describe the object as cometary in their reports without telling them. Soon after the posting of FPC001, L. Sarounova (Ondrejov) sent to the MPC a report describing a tail of about 20" long at about 300 degrees P.A. Then Brian Marsden Of the MPC asked Carl Hergenrother (Lunar and Planetary Laboratory) to image the object and he did so with the 1.54 meter Kuiper telescope. The image displayed a 15" coma and a tail at 280 degrees P.A. according to the IAUC #7331. The comet was authenticated as new and indeed as a comet with that circular just 48 hours after FPC001 was listed on the NEO Confirmation Page. That’s what I call efficient!

I had two e-mails from Brian Marsden. The first I received at 6:16 PM Friday, just 13 hours after we turned in the original data to the MPC. In his message he told about the object being placed on the NEO Confirmation Page, and then asked if indeed it turned out to be a new comet how we would want it to be named.

The second e-mail from Brian I received Saturday morning, told of the progress on the Neo page and that it was confirmed as a new comet. So, actually we knew it was a confirmed comet in just 30 hrs..

This was great news for Graham and I and very hard to keep secret until the IAUC #7331 came out the next morning just prior to the annual NEKAAL Christmas meeting. ( As a matter of fact there were quite a few with foreknowledge of this announcement - my mother for one!) Since the announcement was made on Sunday the 12th of December, local news stations were invited run a story on the first comet ever discovered while observing in the state of Kansas. At least two TV stations taped the event for broadcast that evening and we thought it nice to get some press on the comet discovery. Then Monday Graham and I were asked to do interviews for the local Newspaper and by a Kansas City TV station and Junction City TV station.. On Tuesday the article from the local newspaper apparently was sent to the Associated Press. Tuesday night I did a phone interview for the Kansas City Star. I have also heard from my brother the discovery was mentioned on Paul Harvey’s News and Commentary on Tuesday. As I write this article Graham is going to meet with a TV crew at Farpoint tomorrow. Both graham and I received a ton of e-mail and phone calls from all over the world ( well, not phone calls from abroad), congratulating us on our discovery..

Jerry Majers took a few photos yesterday & Cindy is sending them tomorrow to Sky & Telescope magazine as requested, for a possible short article in an upcoming issue. (don’t let those subscriptions lapse.)

This has been a wonderful experience for both Graham and I, but hopefully for Farpoint and NEKAAL as well. Members of NEKAAL have been very supportive of FAST, and to no small extent Comet P/1999 X1 (Hug-Bell) was a discovery for NEKAAL.

This is the first comet for NEKAAL, maybe NOT the last...... 

G. Hug



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