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
FAST UPDATE : COMET P/1999 X1 (HUG-BELL)
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 wouldnt 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 didnt 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. Thats what I call
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 Harveys
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
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. (dont 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......
Copyright 1998 - 1999 Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomers' League