Find comets on the Net, win cool prizes
(CNN) -- Want to become famous in astronomical circles but hesitate to spend dreary nights outside pressing an eyeball into a telescope lens?
Now you can discover comets instead by looking at satellite pictures on your home computer, a novel search method that professional and amateur comet hunters describe as highly effective.
Over the past six years, more than 400 new comets have been spotted with the assistance of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, the premier sun-watching spacecraft.
"What's exciting about these near-sun comets is that we are exploring a population of comets that has never been seen before because they are very small and faint," said Doug Biesecker, a SOHO solar physicist, in a statement.
Such comets often brighten when they approach the sun, but tend to become lost in its glare. In some SOHO observations, a strong filter blocks out the intense light near the solar disk, bringing nearby comets into view.
Most of the discoveries came from celestial hobbyists combing through Internet images and movies, shot by some of the many instruments crammed on SOHO.
The Net search can prove addictive, some participants caution, but it sure beats the conventional approach.
Using a telescope, it took Xingming Zhou of China 15 years to discover one comet. In the past two years, while sifting through the real-time SOHO data, Zhou bagged 13 of the primordial ice boulders.
Maik Meyer of Germany, who has made 25 comet discoveries, warned that the searches can sap a lot of time. "It is now fun but there was a time when it was an addition."
Meyer and others offered tips for beginners: Have plenty of patience, look in areas where comets are known to wander, and make sure comet candidates are not stars, planets or image distortions. A high-speed Internet connection helps too.
"Most comet [discoveries] are posted right after the images are coming in. It is actually more a sport with the goal to post first. A technology battle, so to speak," Meyer said.
To spice up the international rivalry, SOHO researchers came up with a contest: Predict the day and time when the 500th comet discovered with SOHO's help makes its closest approach to the sun.
"I've been accepting guesses down to the hour and minute. I prefer that the guesser tell me which time format they are using, for example, Universal Time or Eastern Time," Biesecker said.
While the competition might seem a tad nerdy, the winner will receive some pretty hip prizes. A T-shirt and poster emblazoned with a cool picture of the sun, and the DVD version of the amazing IMAX film SOLARMAX. The score is by Nigel Westlake, the Australian composer best known for his soundtrack to the movie "Babe."
Email entries must be received by May 31. For additional information on the contest, check out: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/cometcontest
For more suggestions on how to hunt SOHO comets, visit: http://www.sungrazer.org
Be prepared for occasional Internet glitches. The SOHO data must jump through many complex technological hoops to go from space to the living room and the site sometimes goes down. A handful of people think more than high-tech glitches are to blame.
"Once the comet images were unavailable for months. Some people claimed it was because the mother ship was parked in front of the satellite, and that NASA deliberately censored the images to hide it for the public," SOHO scientist Paal Brekke recalled.
Comet's death dive captured by satellite
October 31, 2001
SOHO orbiting observatory dubbed history's 'most successful comet-hunter'
February 9, 2000
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