by David H. Levy
Four decades of scanning the night sky yields a bountiful harvest when I awoke on the morning of Friday, December 17, 1965, the sky was covered with heavy clouds, but I had a project to plan: searching for new comets. It would be quite a voyage. I thought the best part of the adventure would be that I’d learn the sky on its own terms. No more looking for M13. Instead, I would sweep the sky to see what was there, and if M13 happened to come into my field of view, I’d observe it. As I searched for comets, I reasoned, I’d find interesting celestial objects I had not seen before— and maybe, eventually, a new comet too.
After school that afternoon, I got my record books in order for a brief search for comets between Pollux and Castor—just in case the sky cleared. As my family sat down for dinner, the thick clouds made me forget about starting anything new that evening. After dinner, I left my 8- inch f/7 reflector set up in our yard and walked to my friend Tom Meyer’s home. We visited for a couple of hours, going over the exams we had just written. I was home by around 10 p.m.
At 11:30, I decided to take Clipper, our beagle, for a walk toward the lookout near our home where, just two months earlier, I had feasted my eyes on Comet Ikeya-Seki, its mighty tail soaring out of the St. Lawrence River at the eastern horizon. As we strolled uphill, I noticed that the clouds were thinning, and I even saw a star appear in the west.
We spun around and hurried home.I pointed my telescope to where I thought Gemini was and waited. At five minutes before midnight, a small break in the clouds revealed Pollux and Castor. For the next 10 minutes, I searched the sky between those bright stars, and then the clouds rolled in again.
Those 10 minutes led to a program that has spanned over 3,000 hours of comet hunting, plus thousands of search photographs, to reveal 21 new comets. What about the deep sky I promised I’d learn? My list of almost 400 interesting celestial features is the subject of my new book, Deep Sky Objects: The Best and Brightest from Four Decades of Comet Chasing (Prometheus). And it all began with 10 special minutes at a telescope 40 years ago.