When I wrote recently about the many advantages to meeting other people who enjoy the sky, it is possible that the people I left out were even more important than those included. One of those people was Rolf Meier, an amateur astronomer from Ottawa, Ontario, who passed away recently after a brief bout with cancer at the young age of 63. It is difficult to overstate the effect that his wisdom had on my own development as an astronomer.
Rolf was born in Germany in 1953 but relocated to Canada when he was about five. He became interested in astronomy after reading The Search for Planet X, about how Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Rolf joined the Ottawa Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in the early 1970s. In 1972 he travelled to Florida, where he witnessed the spectacular launch of a mighty Saturn V rocket that carried geologist Harrison Schmidt, as well as astronauts Eugene Cernan and Ronald Evans, on the final Moon flight.
I wish I could have joined him to see that launch, but I actually didn’t meet Rolf until the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s general assembly held in London, Ontario in 1979. At that meeting, Rolf was the 15th recipient of the Society’s Chant medal. Named for Clarence Augustus Chant, this solid silver medal honors an amateur astronomer resident in Canada for a lifetime of achievements; in Rolf’s case, it honored him for the work he did as the long-time editor of the center’s newsletter Astro Notes, for being president of the center, for developing an original astronomical device for measuring light called a photometer, and for his designs for unique and original telescopes. But more than any of that, the medal commemorated the hours upon hours of observing what he did, culminating in his discovery of a comet the previous spring. Comet Meier, then designated as 1978f and now C/1978 H1, remains one of the largest comets ever found. Two or his telescopes received awards at the Stellfane national convention held in Vermont.
At the time, I was well into my own, and thus far unsuccessful, search for comets, and I despaired of ever meeting the famous cometeer. After the banquet at which he received his award, I saw him walking across the campus grounds towards his dormitory. Carrying his award, surrounded on one side by five gorgeous young women and on the other side by another five equally gorgeous young women, I simply assumed that he was too famous to deal with the likes of me.
Not one to give up after one success, Rolf continued his search, and he discovered a second comet (Meier, C/1979 S1). There was a third comet Meier (C/1980 V1) and a fourth (Meier, C/1984 S1). By this time Rolf and I were good friends, a friendship that became ever closer after his marriage to Linda McRae in July 1984. Early in 1985, he set up his camera about a mile south of my home, then in Corona de Tucson. While I had a camera set up at my home, we both tried to photograph bright meteors. It turned out that we both captured the same bright meteor traveling through the constellation of Leo the lion, and Rolf even used trigonometry to try to calculate the height of the meteor above the Earth as it disintegrated.
Rolf and Linda had just completed their winter home at the Arizona Sky Village, a place where they and their son Matthew and daughter-in-law Melissa could visit and where we had hoped to visit them in the future, when he received his shattering cancer diagnosis. What we have left are many fond memories; and of course, we can watch as he finds his new way among his four comets, all of which will bear with pride the name Meier as they sail through the solar system.