Tag Archives: Don Machholz

Our favorite Seattle astronomy events from 2015

Happy New Year from Seattle Astronomy! Yesterday we ran down our top five news stories of the past year. Today, let’s take a look back at our top talks and events from 2015.

Comet Hunter

Scheiderer and MachholzRenowned comet hunter Don Machholz was the keynote speaker last year at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Machholz has discovered eleven comets visually, without the aid of CCD cameras and other modern aids, and that’s the record. He does it the old-fashioned way, sitting at the eyepiece for hours at a time and sweeping the sky for something that wasn’t there before.

Machholz told a wonderful tale about his techniques of comet hunting and about the intensely personal reasons that drove him to the quest. It was an informative, touching, and often hilarious presentation filled with images and music.

It’s all relative

Jeffrey Bennett at the UW's physics/astronomy auditorium. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Last year was the international year of light and marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Jeffrey Bennett toured the country to help us better understand relativity, and stopped in at the April meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society to give a well-received talk about the concepts of relativity. Bennett is an engaging lecturer and his book, What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter, (Columbia University Press, 2014) is a big help, too, that makes a topic that is so mind-bending and daunting to so many truly accessible to a broader audience.

We did a preview interview with Bennett as well.

Physics pioneer

Jim Peebles

Science is mostly about brainpower and creativity, and testing, but there’s some luck involved, too. Case in point: back in 1965 Jim Peebles and colleagues at Princeton were on the hunt for what we now know as the cosmic microwave background, the lasting signature of the Big Bang. Up the road at Bell Telephone Labs, Bob Wilson and Arno Penzias had found the CMB, but didn’t realize what they had! To the latter went the Nobel Prize, but Peebles has been in the forefront of research on the CMB for the past 50 years. We now know a lot about the history of our universe, except for the first fleeting moments that remain a mystery. Peebles talked about that history at a UW lecture in May.

Space tourist

SimonyiCharles Simonyi shelled out a lot of cash to fly to the International Space Station in a Soyuz capsule with the Russians—speculation is that his tab for two trips, in 2007 and 2009, came to about $60 million. Simonyi gave a talk at the University of Washington in September about the practicalities of space travel, and when it might be possible for those of us with somewhat lesser means.

The answer, sadly, is not that soon, but Simonyi envisions a day when the cost of launching a kilogram of mass into space might be driven down to $100, and that might make the cost of space travel something that more people could consider.

Simonyi’s story was an entertaining one that was as much about the training for his two trips to space as it was about the technical aspects of getting there.

Dark matter and the dinosaurs

Lisa RandallHarvard particle physicist and author Lisa Randall has a new hypothesis about what may have killed the dinosaurs on Earth. It’s a surprisingly simple notion, at least once you get past the fact that it depends on a new sort of particle that we haven’t yet detected.

Randall spoke at Town Hall Seattle in November about her ideas and her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). The theory in a nutshell: suppose that there’s a type of dark matter that interacts with light. Such dark matter could collapse into a disk, just like our galaxy. As our solar system orbits the galaxy, we periodically go up and down through the galactic plane. Passing through the plane would also move us through this disk of dark matter, which could gravitationally dislodge comets from the Oort Cloud and send them hurtling our way.

It is an interesting idea that Randall says she’ll devote much time to testing in the coming years.

Honorable mention on our list: the lecturers of the Big Bang and Beyond series at the UW, including Andy Connolly, Miguel Morales, Julianne Dalcanton, and Adam Frank; George Musser, who spoke about his book Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); and Curiosity rover chief engineer Rob Manning, who gave a talk based on his tome Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).


An evening with famed comet hunter Don Machholz

In an age when automated programs are scanning the night sky using high-tech telescopes, CCD cameras, and computing power to find near-Earth objects, Don Machholz continues to search for comets the old-fashioned way.

“I do it visually,” Machholz explained at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last month. “I do not use cameras, I do not use CCDs. I look through the eyepiece and I push the telescope.”

Scheiderer and Machholz

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer, left, with comet hunter Don Machholz at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Machholz is the record holder, with eleven comets discovered visually since he started his hunt in the mid-1970s. That doesn’t sound like so many, but consider this: according to the Catalog of Comet Discoveries, there have been 1,502 comets discovered since 2005. Of those, just three have been discovered visually. The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) got full or shared credit for thirty-three comet discoveries last year alone. The last time a comet was discovered visually was in 2010, when there were two, and Machholz bagged one of those.

There’s a little bit of luck involved in comet hunting. Machholz jokes that the first thing you need to do to find a comet is to be looking where it is in the 40,000 square degrees of sky. But he has a system. He checks websites to figure out where the programs like Pan-STARRS are looking on a particular night and then conducts his hunt in a different part of the sky. Machholz divides the sky into sections, and makes telescope sweeps covering about fifteen degrees at a time. Then moves down about a half field of view and sweeps again. He keeps meticulous records of his searches.

“It sounds boring, but you get to see a different part of the sky all the time,” Machholz said.

He got interested in astronomy as a boy. His father was a naval navigator and had a book with star charts that Don used to learn the sky. When he was about eight years old his sister brought home a book about meteors that piqued his interest. Finally, Machholz received a telescope for his thirteenth birthday. On the third night out he found Saturn.

“I could see the rings on it,” he recalled, thinking stargazing might not be such a bad hobby. He was hooked.

A family tragedy helped drive Machholz’s comet-hunting program early on. In 1976 his brother, an avid skier, was killed in an avalanche. Machholz found himself depressed, with insomnia, sleeping just a few hours a night, but with lots of energy.

“That’s kind of the ideal ingredients for a comet hunter,” he said. “For the next three or four years my comet hunting program developed to a greater and greater depth. Comet hunting wasn’t just something I did, it became part of who I am.”

His early comet hunting was done from his parents’ back yard and other locations around Concord, California. After moving to San Jose in 1976 he did much of his observing from nearby Loma Prieta mountain. In 1990 he moved to Colfax, California and built an observatory there.

After so much time at the eyepiece, Machholz says his heart still skips a beat or two when he thinks he has found a new comet.

“It’s a very important moment,” he said. “First I want to remember what song was on the radio.” He always has the radio playing when he hunts, and his presentation was full of music from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Phil Collins and Cyndi Lauper. He adds, though, that there’s no time for jumping up and down when he finds a comet, because there’s serious work to do.

“You don’t want to lose it,” he explained. “You might have it in the field now, but if you bump the telescope or let too much time go by and it drifts out of the field, you have to be able to find it again.”

“You have to be sure you know where you’re looking, make sure it’s not a galaxy or a cluster,” he added. He double checks with his star atlas, makes a drawing that puts the comet in its position compared to the field of stars, and watches to see if it moves. If all that checks out he reports the discovery by email, phone, and fax.

96/P Machholz

Comet 96/P Machholz as seen by the HI-2 camera on the STEREO-A spacecraft.

Of all of his discoveries, Machholz said comet is 96P/Machholz is his favorite.

“It is an amazing comet; it has its own Facebook page,” he said.

The orbit of 96/P Machholz changes because of the influence of Jupiter, and the perturbations have some scientists thinking there may be large undiscovered planets way out beyond Pluto. The comet also is low on carbon and cyanogen. This hasn’t been explained, though the leading ideas are that it may have originated in another solar system, or been exposed to temperature extremes that changed its chemical composition.

It was a pleasure to spend an evening with Don Machholz. His lively presentation was full of humor and had the banquet audience laughing and engaged.


Comet hunter Machholz to keynote annual Seattle Astronomical Society banquet

Don Machholz

Comet hunter Don Machholz will keynote the Seattle Astronomical Society annual banquet Jan. 24.

The Seattle Astronomical Society always seems to score interesting speakers for its annual banquet, and this year is no exception. Renowned comet hunter Don Machholz will give the keynote talk at the 2015 banquet Saturday, January 24, at the Swedish Club, 1920 Dexter Avenue North in Seattle.

Machholz is a prolific comet finder; he has eleven comet discoveries listed to his credit. The first was Machholz 1978L, discovered in September of that year after more than 1,700 hours of observing. The most recent was comet C 2010 F4 (Machholz). All of his discoveries have been made visually, quite a record in these days of digital cameras, computers, and space telescopes joining in the hunt.

Machholz is also considered to be one of the creators of the Messier marathon, an challenge to astronomers to observe all 110 objects in Charles Messier’s catalog in one night. Machholz has written a guidebook, The Observing Guide to the Messier Marathon: A Handbook and Atlas, published by Cambridge University Press in 2002.

Machholz has written several other books. Decade of Comets chronicles the comets discovered visually between 1975 and 1984. An Observer’s Guide to Comet Hale-Bopp came out in 1996.

It should be a most interesting evening.

Tickets to the banquet have been available for members of the Seattle Astronomical Society for several weeks, and went on sale to the general public today. The cost is $40 for members, and $50 for non-members. But why not sign up? Membership is just $35 annually. The Jan. 24 event will begin with a happy hour at 5 p.m., followed by a buffet dinner at 6 p.m. and the program at 7 p.m.

Further reading:

Don Machholz website