Comets to Shower Pennies from Heaven

Amateur astronomers could find comet-spotting a lucrative pastime, thanks to a $20,000 annual prize established this month by the estate of a deceased Kentucky businessman. Ironically, however, the contest has begun after two new observatories have made it extremely difficult for amateurs to spy a new comet before the pros do.

The award, named for Edgar Wilson, a wealthy agriculturist and comet enthusiast who died in 1976, is intended to promote the study of comets. The prize money will be divvied up each June among the amateurs who score first sightings; in the past, amateurs have spotted a half-dozen or so new comets each year. The prize will be administered by the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams and its parent organization, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Anyone not using powerful telescopes, such as those housed in major observatories, is eligible--professional astronomers included.

The prize money likely won't lead to more findings, says Brian Marsden, director of the Central Bureau. Professional astronomers using two observatories--the satellite SOHO and ground-based LINEAR--have a lock on nearly all of the comets visible from Earth, he says. He points out that two famous amateur finds in the last decade--comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp--were discovered before SOHO and LINEAR came online. "As time goes by, there will be very few amateur discoveries of comets," predicts Marsden. If that happens, he says, "we will try to take into account [amateurs] who made a contribution to astronomy and cometry."