Meet Comet Discoverer Gordon Garradd

For us comet lovers, one of Gordon Garradd’s discoveries is the coolest such object up there, just now. Comet Garradd (formal designation C/2009 P1) has been plowing along toward the sun, growing more impressive by the night.

This comet seems to like globular clusters, those big round collections of ancient stars. It cruised close to globular cluster M15 from the morning of Aug. 2 through the morning of Aug. 3, and now its tail is predicted to overlay globular cluster M71 on Friday night-Saturday morning, Aug. 26-27.

[View of Comet Garradd taken by Bernhard Hubl from his backyard observatory in Nussbach, Austria. The comet is passing near the globular cluster M15. To see a larger version, click HERE — and for an even larger view, click the image that shows up at the link]

Garradd and another astronomer, Rob McNaught, are the staff of the Siding Spring Survey, part of an effort to detect near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are potentially dangerous asteroids and comets. They work at Siding Spring Observatory, New South Wales, Australia, about 250 miles northwest of Sydney. The survey is the southern counterpart of the Catalina Sky Survey based at Mt. Bigelow near Tucson, according to the Australian National University.

The Siding Spring Survey is “jointly operated by the University of Arizona and the Australian National University, with funding from NASA,” the survey’s Internet site adds. Using powerful telescopes and cameras, the astronomers scan the skies for evidence of objects whose orbits around the sun could carry them close enough to Earth to “pose a threat of impact and thus harm to civilization.”

Since 2004, the survey has discovered dozens of comets and hundreds of near-Earth asteroids.

Unfortunately, this vital service is about to end. The most recent update is that Tuesday night Garradd told Nightly News, “We received official confirmation that the project will be ending in late October, so I only have four or five more nights of NEO observing at the Siding Spring Survey in October.”

Garradd discovered this comet in August 2009 when it was 744 million miles away, so distant that it was no more than a smudge on his survey photographs. To understand more about the discovery and the astronomer, Nightly News conducted the following interview of Garradd by email.
Nightly News: “How did you discover this comet?”
Garradd: “C/2009 P1 was found as part of the NEO survey at Siding Spring Observatory. It was a fairly routine discovery, although there was a bit coma visible on the images, so I reported it as a comet, rather than an NEO.”
NN: “Are you surprised that it is starting to have a lot of interest?”
Garradd: “No, I’m not really surprised, as this comet is looking like it might be a nice binocular object, which is much more interesting than most of my other comet discoveries, which have been faint fuzzies.”
NN: “How many comets have you discovered?”
Garradd: “That’s a good question! I think it’s about 17 with my name, plus a few others that are called Comet Siding Spring, since their cometary nature was not obvious on the short exposure survey images I discovered them on, so I reported them as NEOs, rather than comets. According to the Minor Planet Center rules, although I discovered them, I don’t get my name on them due to not initially reporting them as comets.”
NN: “Are you still at Siding Spring?”
Garradd: “Yes, I am still employed part time at Siding Spring on the NEO survey, although I am currently on vacation, which I have to take before the project ends later this year.
“The Siding Spring Survey searches for NEOs and has been operating since 2004, and is due to finish later this year when the funding runs out.”
NN: “And what are your current projects?”
Garradd: “Current projects whilst on vacation are working on my off-grid power system — building an 18 metre tower for a 2nd wind generator and an alt-az mount [a type of mount often used with telescopes] for an additional 2 kW [kilowatt] array of solar panels, along with planting out vegetables in my organic garden.”

NN: “I’ll probably write my blog about Monday next week. [This slipped to Tuesday.] Would you have time before then to tell me a little more about yourself? How you got into astronomy, how old you are … married or not, things like that? I think our readers would be fascinated to know about you, as the discoverer of the nicest comet up there right now, and as an astronomer from another country.”

[A more detailed image of Comet Garradd, taken by Bernhard Hubl in Nussbach, Austria. A larger version is HERE — and again, for an even bigger photo, click the view that shows up at the link]

Garradd: “I’ve always been interested in Astronomy since I was very young, and have built myself quite a few telescopes over the years, including making the mirrors, up to 46cm (18″) diameter. I’ve built most of my mounts too, including the horseshoe/fork mount for the 46cm f/5.4 Newtonian, and German mounted 25cm [about 10”] f/4.1 that I’ve used for many years observing NEOs and comets.

“I’ve got a few astrophotos [which Garradd later confirmed that he took] on my web pages here: (CLICK THIS SPOT).

“I’m 52, and built my first telescope, a 20 cm [nearly 9”] f/7 Newtonian (I didn’t make that mirror though) while still in high school when I was 16. I have been married since last year to Hether, who I’ve known since 2007.
“I’ve been living off the power grid, on solar and wind power since 1991 on my block of land at Loomberah, which has a nice dark sky. I’ve built a large equatorial tracking mount for a 2.2 kW array of solar panels and have started building a large alt-az mount for a 2nd 2 kW array. I’ve also got a couple of wind turbine generators on towers I’ve constructed myself.

“We’ve got a well established small orchard, mostly cherry trees, but also apricots, peaches, plums, mulberries, apples and pears, and we have a large vegetable garden. The whole lot is grown organically, and we have about 25 chickens — free range organically fed chickens — in the fenced off orchard. We are currently building a straw bale house for the chickens.

“I ride my mountain bike around nearby areas quite a lot, averaging about 200 km [about 125 miles] /week, with occasional rides of 100-250 km [about 60 to 155 miles], to stay fit generally and in preparation for racing, although I haven’t done many races in the past few years.

“I hope that’s enough info :)”
Yes, it is — enough to give us a glimpse of an interesting astronomer, his hardy lifestyle, the important work he and his project have been doing in Australia, and the impressive comet he discovered.
Now, if only the NEO survey can be extended.

[A short movie of Comet Garradd was posted at the Planetary Society’s site. It was taken by Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah. The lower movie simulates a 3-D animation for those with red-blue glasses]

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