Not satisfied with telescopes, amateur astronomers are using the internet to search the solar system and become the first to find a new comet.
The sky sleuths are hooked on comet hunting, drawn by the thrill of being the first to record a new find and have it named after them.
It is an addictive and time consuming hobby, but by finding comets these amateurs are contributing to the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (Soho) project run by Nasa and the European Space Agency.
Soho is a spacecraft designed to study the internal structure of the Sun, its extensive outer atmosphere and the origin of the solar wind, the stream of highly ionised gas that blows continuously through the solar system.
The aim of the project is to achieve a better understanding of the interactions between the Sun and the Earth's environment, giving physicists their first long-term, uninterrupted view of our closest star.
Pictures taken of the Sun are available on the Soho website here.
Amateur astronomer Michael Oates, from Manchester in the UK, began a quest at the end of January 2000, after having been told of the site by Jonathan Shanklin, BAA Comet Section Director, at a presentation in London.
"I started to look the next day and found [a comet] within an hour or so. It turned out that I was not the first to find it and was given joint discovery with Maik Meyer and Terry Lovejoy. I only had to wait for another week to find my first solo comet," he said.
Oates has now been credited with finding 132 comets, 125 of which are solo discoveries.
"What's it like to discover a comet? Well find one and you will find out! But, if my experience is anything to go by, I would not recommend it if you have a weak heart. I would imagine the feeling is rather like winning a large amount on the lottery," he explained.
Oates estimated that his computer was downloading images for at least 12 hours a day, with about half that time spent directly searching and processing images.
"The quality and quantity of information Soho has provided over its much extended mission is wonderful. However, what is really unique is the openness of the project, where real-time images are made available automatically on the internet," he explained.
"These images may have only been taken a few minutes previously and anyone looking at the website could be the first person to see them, even before the scientists themselves. This is what makes this mission so special."
Oates maintained that his hobby is contributing to the study of astronomy by providing information for use in scientific papers.
One of the most recent finds was by a Chinese man, XingMing Zhou, on 12 April who was the first to spot the C/2002 G3 (Soho) comet. Zhou has spent over 1,600 hours searching for comets, and has found 13 since September 2000.
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