Cardinal wrote the program that first recorded the existence of the comet.
courtesy Leanne Yohemas

Astronomer leaves his mark in the sky

U of C researcher stumbles across comet while looking for asteroids

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Thanks to an accidental discovery, there is now a comet named after a University of Calgary professor flying though space. U of C research associate and asteroid hunter Rob Cardinal was searching a patch of sky near the North Celestial Pole for asteroids in early October. Using the re-furbished Baker-Nunn telescope, Cardinal took images of a new object with automated software he wrote. Initial analysis of the images cast doubt on the object's asteroid status, but astronomers in Japan and Harvard University's Minor Planet Centre confirmed it as a new comet with a small tail and atmospheric cloud.

This is a first for the U of C's Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. The work was part of the Near Earth Space Surveillance mission which observes asteroids in space. Cardinal wrote the automated software used to search for constant linear motion in a series of five images. He explained his team suspected something because the images showed that the moving object was exceptionally bright.

"It was suspicious right away since it was so bright and moving so slowly-- essentially too bright to be a small asteroid, but too slow to be a near-Earth object," said Cardinal. "By the time we reported it, we really thought it was cometary, but we didn't have proof at the time."

Cardinal pointed out that it was International Astronomical Union protocol that gave him credit for the discovery, but he thanked the help of other astronomers and his team.

"Mike Mazur, a former team member was instrumental in refurbishing the scope into an asteroid-hunting scope," said Cardinal. "Alan Hildebrand, the principle investigator, made the observations of the coma. I happened to be the observer on Oct. 1 and wrote the software that found it."

He explained that comets are made up of bits of debris and ice left over from the formation of the solar system.

"Comets are from the spherical halo which surrounds the whole solar system while asteroids are rocky and metallic debris from in between Mars and Jupiter where a planet was prevented from forming essentially by Jupiter's gravity influence," said Cardinal.

The C/2008 T2 Cardinal comet will be visible next June, when it makes its closest approach to the sun and develops a large coma and tail in the southern hemisphere. Many scientists are working on determining more about the route of the comet. Cardinal encouraged people to come out to observe it at the RAO.

"In the future, mankind will utilize asteroids and comets for resources," he said.