Patience leads to new comet discovery by Colfax amateur astronomer

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Colfax amateur astronomer Don Machholz is on Cloud 9 and back on the celestial map after the discovery of his 11th comet. The out-of-this world find came Tuesday morning but took three days – and some inopportune cloud cover – to confirm. That came on Friday when the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams registered “C/2010 F4 (Machholz).” It’s been a long wait for Machholz, 57, who averages 100 hours a year of sky scanning, using a high-powered telescope. Machholz discovered his last comet in 2004. But the longer wait came in the hours and days after he spotted the comet – a purple blur – in the eastern sky just before morning twilight. “I would have been given no credit if no one had found it again,” Machholz said. Brian Marsden, with the Smithsonian, said Monday that telescopic camera searches and satellite images that have virtually replaced naked-eye scans by humans didn’t pick it up in the dark sky but the comet brightened as it moved closer to the sun. The high-tech methods don’t train in on images that close to the sun, he said. “This is where an amateur like Don still is able to contribute,” Marsden said. On Friday and with the skies clear of clouds, Machholz was able to find the comet again and a few short hours later, the Smithsonian official confirmed the comet. It has been 607 hours of scanning the sky since Machholz found his last comet. “It is both a blessing and a humbling experience to find one of these objects,” Machholz said. Machholz’s discovery was the first visual comet find in the world since October 2006. Marsden said. With computerization and satellites providing more efficient ways of spotting comets, Machholz’s quest in his home observatory in Colfax has become a personal one. He’s battling machines that can do what man cannot. But on a clear spring morning, Machholz held the edge. On Tuesday, he was along with his yellow lab Roxy and radio’s “Rob, Arnie and Dawn,” while his wife, Laura, and sons Matt and Mark slept. Mark Machholz was last season’s varsity quarterback at Colfax High School. “I don’t know of anybody who’s still looking seriously the way Don Machholz does,” Marsden said. “It’s nice to see that. More power to him.” Machholz started looking for comets in 1975 and his first find came three years later while his telescope was set up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Since moving to Colfax, he has found two comets in 1992, three in 1994 and one in 2004.