A year of discovery and exploration with the FTs

Since the remarkable global news coverage which accompanied the discovery that Comet C2007/Q3 was breaking comet_sidingspring.jpgup, back in early2010, Nick Howes, Equipment consultant at Astronomy Now magazine has been working with the team at Faulkes on programs which the twin 2m telescopes can really flex their amazing muscles on. 

Soon after this comet's fragmentation event in March of last year, which led to a 4000% increase in traffic on the Faulkes telescopes, Nick started to work on a determined program of comet and near Earth object (NEO) imaging and analysis. With the arrival of Comet 103P Hartley into the inner solar system, work began on a long duration program of study of what also turned out to be a quite remarkable comet.

comet_hartley_nick.jpgDue to have a close approach flyby by the NASA EPOXI spacecraft, the Faulkes telescopes were used regularly to determine the comet’s coma size, and using a combination of his own time and imaging time spent on the comet by schools, Nick was able, using rotational gradient processing techniques, to determine the rotation rate of the comet, independently of the eventual NASA findings from the Hubble space telescope and the flyby mission. Nick’s work on 103P made National Geographic, BBC News,  The Times Newspaper, the NASA Science homepage and was featured in a NASA JPL press conference alongside the Hubble images - the only amateur to attain this.

After this, Nick received an invitation to work alongside Italian observers Giovanni Sostero and Ernesto Guido, two of the worlds leading amateur astronomers in the field of near Earth object and comet recovery and observation, and between them, they devised a long term plan to monitor and observe comets and NEOCP objects listed by the Minor Planet Centre at Harvard University, a program which has again had quite stunning success this year.
“We’re looking daily at the NEOCP lists, taking the initial observational data, running it through orbit analysis software and determining if new objects are possibly comets or showing cometary orbit-like nature” says Nick. “We then use the power of the 2m Faulkes scopes to image these objects, which we’ve successfully done down to over magnitude 21, which for a moving target is quite impressive, and then looking for the tell tale signs of a coma, or diffuse nature”

The results of this program have been nothing short of remarkable with Nick and the team cited on multiple MPEC’s (Minor Planet Electronic Circulars) and IAU Circulars. “We’ve managed to confirm or be part of the confirmation observer list for multiple new comets now, most recently helping Leonid Elenin confirm his second comet.

Alongside the comets, Nick’s team are also observing and improving the orbital data for multiple near Earth objects. “We’re also helping to constrain orbits on new objects almost daily, and sometimes when imaging either comets or asteroids, we strike gold and find completely new stuff”.

Recently in an image taken of Comet 2P Encke, Nick’s team discovered a total of three completely new asteroids in one image frame. “The new spectral camera on Faulkes with it’s 10 arcmin field of view has really opened up the possibilities for us” says Nick. “It’s amazing that a schoolteacher in Israel, who himself is conducting some good research into a well known comet, accidentally caught these three new bodies in one shot, which we found after inspecting his data. The key to this is being quick, as there are many deep sky surveys all over the world, with large telescopes, but having access to Faulkes gives us some better and more targeted possibilities, especially for follow on”

Nick was recently a co-author o2011MD_3filter.jpgn an APhy Journal paper which featured his work on Comet 103P, and is now working with summer students at Faulkes on more programs to help students do real science on existing data as well as working on new observations. "We also had a bit of fun, which made most of the international news recently imaging the close approach asteroid 2011MD using Faulkes, showing the 12,000mph house-sized asteroid literally flying by on the images and animations created" says Nick "Coordinating with BBC Television's Mark Thompson who was also imaging, we could show the asteroid increasing in speed as it approached the Earth from the images we were taking just minutes apart"

It's comets however which Nick is most interested in - “Working on cometary studies may give us a better chance of working out what makes them tick, why they fragment (where, when and what causes it). With Faulkes, we have two incredible telescopes which give us the capability to do this kind of work, and involving schools just makes it all the more thrilling, as hopefully, some of the students will want to pursue a career in astronomy or science when they leave school”

Some of Nick, Ernesto and Giovanni’s work and discoveries can be seen at http://remanzacco.blogspot.com/