Thar She Blows! Amateurs Photograph Incoming Comet

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The 4-kilometer (2.5 miles) wide Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as spotted by astronomers using the Faulkes Telescope system.
Faulkes Telescope

THE GIST

— Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a 2.5-mile wide "dirty snowball" with a 6.5 year orbit around the sun.

— The European Rosetta mission will study the comet during its 2014 encounter.

— Amateur astronomers were the first to re-image the comet as it dives toward the inner solar system.

Astronomy is one of the few sciences that allows amateur practitioners to actively take part in real research projects — be it monitoring planetary atmospheres or studying distant galaxies.

Over recent years, the advance in technology has led to the availability of research-grade telescopes across the Internet such as the Faulkes telescopes in Hawaii and Siding Spring (Austalia).

It was with these instruments that a team of amateur astronomers have been the first to re-image Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it makes its latest dive toward the inner solar system.

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The comet, originally discovered in 1969 by Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, orbits the sun once every six and a half years. The European Rosetta mission is currently en route to the comet and, in 2014, the spacecraft will have a close encounter with the "dirty snowball," dropping a small lander onto its icy surface.

At a recent conference for the Rosetta mission with both professional and amateur astronomers, Faulkes Telescope Pro-Am Program Manager Nick Howes put forward a detailed plan for long-term observations of the comet, using the 2-meter Faulkes telescopes.

"After attending a hugely successful meeting with representatives of many major professional telescopes and the European Space Agency (ESA), our proposal to provide ground support for the ESA Rosetta mission was very well received," Howes told Discovery News. "We'd heard that the VLT and other large professional observatories had not been able to image the comet, but we'd already put forward a detailed proposal which included attempting to image it from April 2012, when the magnitude was estimated between 23-24."

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Despite some uncertainty, Howes' reputation for pushing the Faulkes telescopes to their limits convinced the professionals that it was possible and it wasn't long before British Astronomical Association member Richard Miles managed to capture the comet on April 19, 2012.

Following the initial discovery, Howes' team in Italy, Giovanni Sostero and Ernesto Guido managed to get the confirmation image of the comet on April 25.

The team now plan to work with schools and other amateur astronomers to obtain follow-up observations in order to refine the comet's orbit, helping ESA to calculate orbits and trajectories for the Rosetta mission.

Sarah Roberts, Education Director for Faulkes Telescopes, explains: "We're now hoping to work with the wider amateur community over the coming years, and at this time, get schools and students imaging the comet as much as possible, as the data is scientifically valuable, and will probably lead to some research papers from the pro-am community".

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"It's a remarkable achievement from our 'amateur' teams," said Paul Roche, Faulkes Telescope Director. "We held back on any announcement of the first capture, as the minor planet center usually like to have more than one observation before they confirm a comet recovery, but to find that the images taken by our telescopes have proved yet again what amateurs can do, is quite remarkable"

"'Amateurs' is such a misnomer in these instances as was evidenced from the reception and comments made by the professional community at the Rosetta conference."