UK school helps discover a new comet as part of BBC Stargazing Live

January 10, 2013

A UK school working with the Faulkes Telescope Project at the University of Glamorgan has helped an international team of astronomers confirm the discovery of a new comet.

The observations that led to the confirmation of the new comet were co-ordinated by the Faulkes Telescope Pro-Am programme manager, Nick Howes and his colleague Ernesto Guido from the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy.

The pair had been looking for interesting targets to observe from a list of newly discovered objects in the Solar System published by the Minor Planet Centre in Harvard, when they came across an object which they suspected might be a comet. The Faulkes team have been observing and imaging comets and asteroids all week with schools across the UK and Europe, in support of the BBC Stargazing Live shows.

These huge lumps of ice and dust (often described as ‘dirty snowballs’) are leftover objects from the formation of the Solar System, so are of great interest to astronomers.

Howes communicated with Jim Scotti, the astronomer in Arizona who had observed the object first, via the social network site Twitter. “It became clear from speaking to Jim that he thought they had seen something interesting, and he encouraged us to perform additional observations to make sure that it really was what we suspected” said Howes.

The new comet is billions of times fainter than the human eye can see, so it was imaged by Howes and Guido using the 2-metre diameter Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii. The telescopes are perfectly suited to imaging very faint objects, and are controlled remotely via the Internet. Fortunately, the position of the comet in the sky also permitted them to request additional observations from a group of school students working with teacher Peter Phelps at Hazlemere Church of England School in Buckinghamshire.

“The initial data from Faulkes North was not 100% clear, as the object was so faint, but we suspected it was a comet, and asked for more images – luckily Hazlemere School were able to help out” Howes added. The extra images provided by the school group were enough to convince the scientists that it was indeed a newly discovered comet.

The Minor Planet Centre, the official body that recognises the discoveries of new asteroids and comets, confirmed the discovery on January 8th. They listed the Faulkes observations and Hazlemere School’s contribution in the announcement of the new comet, now called P2012 A2 Scotti.

“To say we’re over the moon would be an understatement – this was one of the trickiest comets we’ve ever worked on, as it was extremely faint and has a very small tail. It took all our efforts for several hours to confirm it using both of our telescopes in Hawaii and Australia” said Professor Paul Roche of the University of Glamorgan, who runs the Faulkes Telescope Project. “It’s fantastic that we managed to nail this one during the airing of the Stargazing Live shows, and to have a UK school taking some of the crucial observations was just the icing on the cake.”

The work is part of a research project devoted to detecting and refining the orbits of icy objects in the far reaches of the Solar System. This is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Faulkes project at Glamorgan and the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, co-ordinated by Howes and involving schools and amateur astronomers from around the world.

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