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Comet Tale

by Dave Yanko
- courtesy Jack Newton
Comet Petriew

Near the end of November 1998, a mountain of ice and dust streaking through our solar system began arcing away from the region of Jupiter and hurtling back towards the Sun. It happened to be tracking past Earth in August 2001, during the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party held each year at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. Cypress Hills is the highest point of land between the Rockies and Labrador. Higher altitudes and low light polution can help to provide "good seeing" for stargazers.

Star party participant Vance Petriew, of Regina, was excited. The 32-year-old computer consultant with a lifelong interest in astronomy had recently acquired a 20-inch telescope—the biggest "light bucket" in Saskatchewan. After spending Thursday night (and early Friday morning) fine tuning the optics, Petriew was not about to call it quits the next night when others began packing up their gear at 3 a.m. (on Saturday, August 18).

Three quarters of an hour later Petriew was "star-hopping" across the constellation Taurus. He was searching for the Crab Nebula, a beautiful remnant of a supernova observed by Chinese astronomers back in 1054 AD, when he landed on a "fuzzy thing" he couldn't identify. Although he didn't know it at the time, Petriew had just laid claim to that mountain of ice and dust, and to a pinch of immortality, too. More than a year later, he is still finding out what it's like to discover a comet.

He tried two more times to find the nebula with the same puzzling result. That's when Saskatoon amateur astronomer Richard Huziak came over and asked Petriew what he was looking at.

"It's a common question,'' Petriew says, recalling the event, "but it kind of struck me as a little bit funny at the time because I didn't know what I was looking at. I was trying to find out.''

Vance and Rick.
- from an image by Jennifer Petriew
Vance Petriew and Richard Huziak.

Huziak, an amateur with 30 years of experience, peered into the eyepiece of Petriew's large scope and announced that the mystery object looked like a comet. The two men quickly scoured their star charts and data in an effort to identify it, but could not. Petriew stifled any urge toward excitement because his information was a month old. Even if it is a new comet, he reasoned, it had likely been discovered in the interim.

Nevertheless, they promptly and carefully gathered all the facts they could about the object and submitted them Saturday at sunrise to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), astronomy's governing body.

By the time Petriew and his young family returned home to Regina late Sunday afternoon, professional astronomer Alan Hale, of Comet Hale-Bopp fame, had confirmed discovery of the new comet. Petriew, who admits he's not the sort of person you'll find "jumping up and down on the couch" with excitement, says he and his wife Jennifer cheered the news with their young daughter Emily and then began phoning family members to share it. For Petriew, though, the import of the discovery had yet to crystallize.

"I knew it was a significant event, but how significant I didn't really know until I started checking it out on the Internet and saw how really rare these discoveries are.''

Rare, indeed. In 2001, Petriew was the only human being to visually discover a comet. That's not to say Comet Petriew, formally known as P/2001 Q2 Petriew, was the only comet discovered that year; it was the only one spotted by a person peering through the eyepiece of a telescope. A satellite used primarily to study the sun, as well as automated sky surveys used to find and track near-Earth objects, account for the other finds.

All of which begs the question: Should we be concerned these robotic telescopes and their masters missed Comet Petriew, perhaps a kilometre-wide body of ice and dust speeding in the vicinity of the Earth at some 30 km per second (67,000 mph)?

Crab Nebula
- courtesy European Southern Observatory
Petriew was looking for the Crab Nebula.

"Yes and no," says Petriew.

Yes, for reasons related to the paucity of living dinosaurs, and no, because the miss appears to have spawned a surge in recreational comet hunting. A half a dozen new discoveries occurred during the first six months of 2002, alone, including one by Calgarian William Kwong Yu Yeung. Even David Levy, co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9—that's the one whose fragments careered into Jupiter in 1994—says Petriew's achievement "inspired him to look even harder.''

The media flurry began almost instantly. Respected Canadian astronomy writer Alan Dyer attended the star party and he well understood Petriew's rare good fortune. His story appeared Monday on the website of Sky and Telescope magazine, the most popular astronomy magazine for amateur astronomers. Meanwhile, a tip to the Regina Leader-Post newspaper resulted in a story and photo on Page One of Tuesday's edition that was fed to news services across Canada.

"Tuesday morning I got a phone call at 6 o'clock (from a radio station) wanting an interview already. The first couple of days I was doing radio interviews almost every half hour,'' said Petriew, adding his employer was very understanding.

An interview with NASA on Tuesday blossomed into an impressive website tribute to Petriew and his "old fashioned" method of discovering a comet by peering into the eyepiece of a telescope—it's a surprisingly rare activity among today's professional astronomers. The page is a wealth of information, images and illustrations, as well as links to finder charts and 3D orbital animations illustrating Comet Petriew's 5.5-year elliptical journey to the realm of Jupiter and back.

The media attention subsided, but it hasn't stopped. In July 2002, Petriew learned he's a co-winner of the Edgar Wilson Award presented to amateur comet finders by the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. That prompted Maclean's magazine to carry a story and large photo of him in a late September issue, while the American magazine Astronomy has scheduled an article for its January, 2003 number.

It's been quite an experience for a young man who grew up enthralled by the Northern Lights and bright stars above his farm home near Radisson, Saskatchewan. Petriew recalls at age 6 or 7 constantly pestering his mother to read to him from a book about going to the moon. By 13, he had his own telescope and was anxious to learn everything he could about the cosmos.

"I had one book, Our Universe, that I used to take to school on the bus every day and read it. It's just in a shambles now, but I still have it.''

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that one of the most satisfying things to happen to Petriew since discovering the comet is the kind of recognition he's received from his home province.

Petriew family.
- courtesy Paul Petriew
Petriew, Emily and Jennifer at the 2002 dedication commemorating the discovery of Comet Petriew.

Before unveiling a memorial plaque to Petriew at the 2002 star party at Cypress Hills, the Province of Saskatchewan invited him to the Legislature to announce the dedication and to offer congratulations.

"It's now recognized as the first comet discovery in Saskatchewan and it's in the history books,'' says Petriew. "And that's kind of cool.''

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