SEPTEMBER 23, 2021
I first became interested in astronomy and space when I was 6 years old, and in some form or other I have maintained that interest ever since. While I did not become an astronaut as I had thought I might be while following the Gemini and then Apollo missions going on at the time, and while I did not become a starship commander as I wanted to be while watching the original episodes of "Star Trek," I nevertheless did end up making a career out of astronomy and space. That career has taken me through a lot of interesting twists and turns, including: participation in the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus via working with the Deep Space Network; a Ph.D. dissertation on exoplanets which, over a quarter-century later, still is cited regularly in current research; the discovery of one of the brightest comets of the 20th Century and one of most famous comets in history; involvement in various aspects of the commercial space industry, including the development of Spaceport America here in New Mexico; an eight-year-long teaching gig with the American Public University System wherein I taught on-line undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in astronomy and other space-related topics in the Space Studies Division; and travel to a lot of fascinating places, both here in the U.S. and internationally. It was, especially, some of these trips that inspired me to form the concept of Earthrise embodied within the Earthrise Institute's mission statement and the development of the various educational programs I have conducted under that umbrella ever since, and which a little over a decade ago earned me a special commendation from the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
I saw my first comet when I was 11 years old, just over two weeks after I had acquired my first telescope, and that observation, and observations of additional comets I would make not too long thereafter, spawned a lifelong fascination with these objects, which continues unabated today. Indeed, my observing of comets has been one significant constant throughout all the ups and downs and twists and turns of my life, and I am gratified that many of the observations I have been able to make over the decades have been scientifically useful in some way or other. For a good part of the past decade and a half I have shared, via this website, the adding of each new comet to my lifetime tally, which at this writing stands at 706. (I will note here that many of the comets I observe are short-period objects that return every few years, and for tally purposes I count different returns of any given comet as different comets.)
I have been doing this for so long now that the thought of not observing any comets that might be detectable has almost seemed heretical. However, as much as I might hate to admit it, I am getting older -- I am now 63 -- and for some time I've known in the back of my mind that I would not be able to keep this up forever. Four years ago I wrote that I would perhaps keep up my then-very active level until I had observed my 500th separate comet -- which I predicted would likely be in the 2021-22 timeframe -- after which I might "slow down." There are some comets that I hope to observe in 2024, but once those have come on and gone I might very well decide to "retire" permanently.
A year after I wrote those words, I was hospitalized due to some moderately severe health issues. While I have been in somewhat decent health ever since I was released, the underlying issues have continued to affect various parts of my life, including my astronomical observational activities. While I have continued to observe comets at a reasonably active level during these past three years, these underlying health issues have nevertheless been making it progressively more and more difficult for me to maintain that active level.
On the evening of August 28, 2021, I successfully observed my 500th separate comet for the first time. In light of everything I have discussed above, I am now announcing my "semi-retirement" from my lifelong activity of visual comet observing. I don't have a precise definition of just what that "semi-retirement" entails, but it certainly involves a "slowdown" in my observing -- to probably no more than three or four sessions a month -- and I will be limiting my efforts to the brighter and/or more interesting comets. Provided that my body can hang on long enough, I expect to maintain this level of activity up until the 2024 comets arrive, but once they've departed, I will likely indeed "retire" for good, although it is always possible that I might briefly "come out of retirement" if something especially bright and/or interesting comes along.
But . . . while I am slowing down my visual observational activities, I am not slowing down other aspects of my efforts. Over the past couple of years I have become more and more active in imaging via the Las Cumbres Observatory global network, which among other things has involved the recent recovery of an expected periodic comet on its most recent return as well as positional measurements of newly-discovered comets that have been utilized in the initial orbital calculations included within their respective discovery announcements. During the past few months I have also been developing an educational program on the solar system's "small bodies" that involves the LCO network and that builds upon the “Ice and Stone 2020” presentations that I placed on this web site last year. I have hit a few snags in this effort but I expect to overcome these within the not-too-distant future, and I will announce it at the appropriate time.
In light of this, it is appropriate for me to retool the "Comet Resource Center" on this web site. For the most part this has been reflecting my own visual observational activities, but since I am now downsizing those it is time to make the CRC a true "resource" center that educators, students, researchers, and other interested people from around the world can find useful. I do expect to retain one small section of it for my visual activities, primarily the adding of additional comets to my tally up until "the end" -- whatever, and whenever, that might be. In any event, I will also announce this at the appropriate time, although -- with the exception of whatever comets I might add to my lifetime tally during the interim -- until that time I will probably be making few, if any, updates to the CRC.
As always, I solicit assistance, financial and otherwise, for building and maintaining these efforts. And I especially solicit people, in particular younger people who might consider taking on the Earthrise mantle and making it something truly worthy of that name. I still believe in the Earthrise mission and vision, but before too much longer I would like to turn things over to younger generations who can make them a reality.
Founder, The Earthrise Institute