On December 17, 2015, I reached the milestone of 50 years searching for comets. When I started searching for comets and exploding stars called novae, at 10 minutes before midnight on the night of December 17, 1965, my program has three aims: 1) To become “very” familiar with the sky through searching for comets and/or novae. 2) To discover either a comet or a nova. 3) To learn as much as possible about comets and/or novae through a research program. As of December 17, 1965, the main interest area was in the field of comets. 4) As of the end of 2015, I have seen 192 different comets. That first goal was really for self protection, so that the project would be a success even if, as seemed likely, I never discovered a comet. Sure enough, the project helped me learn the sky as never before.
The heart of my program was clearly in the second goal, and I finally reached it on November 13, 1984, with the discovery of my first comet. I’ll never forget that night as I looked through my telescope at an object that had never been seen before by anyone. I reached that goal a second time early in 1987, and a third time later that same year. On October 2, 2006, I discovered my 22nd comet, and each of those 22 nights will live forever in my memory. Discovering a nova proved a little more challenging, but I did discover independently the great Nova Cygni, just north of the bright summer star Deneb in the northern cross, in the late summer of 1975. I was also one of the first to make an independent discovery of Nova Cygni in the fall of 1978 as it erupted near one of my favorite variable stars. In addition, I have been involved intensely in studying a cataclysmic variable star that my friend Clyde Tombaugh discovered in 1932 based on observations he made on March 23, 1931. On the 59th anniversary of his observation, I witnessed the star erupting again on March 23, 1990. Since then, that star has provided one of the great joys of my astronomy life. It erupted yet again on March 23, 2000, and on several other occasions it has erupted near that date.
The date March 23, it turns out, is pivotal in my life. Two years after my observation of what I call Tombaugh’s star, I wrote a postcard to the young woman who would eventually become my wife. Wendee and I were, in fact, married on March 23, 1997. This turned out to be the fourth anniversary of the day Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker and I discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that collided with Jupiter. The discovery date of that comet was March 23, 1993.
The idea of a research project connected with the observations was uncertain at first, but it developed very well over 50 years; it was a major portion of both my Master’s thesis on the comet poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and on the many comet references and allusions that I found in the writings of William Shakespeare. Combined into the second edition of my book The Starlight Night, these two periods of English literature, along with an additional section about Tennyson, is my latest attempt to connect the night sky with the works of English literature.
What about the future? While I cannot guarantee that I will be searching for comets until the day I die, I can write that I’m not quite ready to stop the program yet; I will be continuing to search for comets for a while to come, both visually with my eye at the eyepiece, and with electronic cameras. Even if I never find another comet again, it is the search that remains the most rewarding for me; as the comet hunter Leslie Peltier wrote long ago, “to hunt a speck of moving haze may seem a strange pursuit, but even though we fail, the search is still rewarding, for no better way can we come face-to-face, night after night, with such a wealth of riches as old Croesus never dreamed of.”