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 ...