Kiwi stargazer nabs comet

By Jarrod Booker

It's about 120 million kilometres away and undetectable to the naked eye. Yet Alan Gilmore can rightly lay claim to it.

The superintendent of the Mount John University Observatory, in the central South Island, has been bestowed the "extreme honour" of having a comet named after him after he discovered it last month.

Only about a dozen comets have been discovered by New Zealanders over the past century. Yet Mr Gilmore could only say: "It's very pleasing".

"Yeah, it's nice to have a comet. "But the publicity is out of all proportion to the effort that was put in, frankly."

For years, Mr Gilmore has scoured the skies using the powerful telescopes at the observatory for asteroids that are in orbits that come close to the Earth's orbit.

"I was working on my own ... and I found an object that looked like an asteroid," Mr Gilmore said.

"So I measured its position and sent that off to a place called the Minor Planets Centre."

The centre emailed him back asking if he had noticed any comet-like features.

Observations from different angles confirmed it had a tail.

"So it just then got named Comet Gilmore. "

It is impossible to know how big Comet Gilmore is, but the nucleus of a comet is typically a few kilometres across.

It is only about one millionth the brightness of the faintest star you can see with the naked eye, and takes about 13 years to travel once around the sun.

Jennie McCormick, secretary of the Auckland Astronomical Society, said Mr Gilmore's discovery was a great honour and a tribute to his persistence.

"The work Alan does looking for faint comets is difficult. It's a hard slog and long hours. It is an extreme honour considering it is going to be there for ever and ever."

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