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Finding ISON

31 Jul 2013, 12:57 UTC
Finding ISON
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

At 4 a.m. Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski were still wide awake.

The early hour was not so unusual for astronomers – a nocturnal bunch, out of necessity – but on this particular morning, clouds blocked the stars above the ISON Observatory near Kislovodsk, Russia. One night earlier, Nevski had noticed a bright speck of light drifting against a field of stars. It moved a lot like a comet, but they couldn’t be sure. The Maidanak Observatory in Uzbekistan had kindly obliged to follow up on the mysterious object with a larger telescope. And so Nevski and Novichonok spent the night poring over old materials, speculating on the orbit of this potential comet, and refreshing their e-mail inboxes. Waiting.

***

Like many other astronomers, the discoverers of what we now call Comet ISON were attracted to the field after being drawn to the sky as children. “Back then, I simply liked to look at it; see its bottomless, endless stretch,” says Novichonok. “I spent my childhood away from the lights of the city, in a village which had a population of 2,000. The sky above our village back then was beautiful.”

Both astronomers cut their teeth finding asteroids. In the ...

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