Comet Hunting

2001 - 2002

The Solar Orbiting Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is a ESA and NASA spacecraft that studies the sun and gives early warning of solar flares, amongst other things. On 6th February 2001, a comet was discovered that fell into the Sun a day later. The name 'sungrazers' was used for subsequent comets discovered in this way.

The kind folk at NASA make the images from the spacecraft available over the internet in near-real time, which gives some interesting opportunities for amateur astronomers to discover comets from the comfort of their armchairs.

I wrote a program to download the latest images as they arrived, run some image filters to pull out features, then attempt to correlate the possible movement vectors of those features across successive images. Filtering those vectors by the expected sort of movement expected from comets produced an automated system for discovery. Sadly the amount of noise in the images, plus the limited computing power available to me at the time, meant that there were too many false positives and it was too difficult to pull out any meaningful data.

The SOHO spacecraft is still going strong, though, so there's still time to have another go.. :)