Comet Watch - Amateur Contributions To Cometary Astronomy

Astronomer and author Gary Kronk will be featured at the July 16th meeting of the Saint Louis Astronomical Society. Comets are objects of contrast. Once feared as omens of future disaster, they are now regarded as relics of the distant past. Although most of the rock and ice that forms them is contained in a nucleus only a few miles long, gas and dust ejected from the nucleus forms a head thousands of miles wide and tails often millions of miles long. Comet impacts brought large quantities of water and considerable amounts of the complex molecules that may have been the building blocks from which the first life on Earth developed. Yet some comet impacts have disrupted the Earth’s surface environment enough to cause mass extinctions of entire species. Many astronomers pursue the study of these “bearded stars”, as they were called by the ancient Greeks, to learn about their structure and composition and about the part they have played in the history of the solar system. Amateur astronomers continue to make significant contributions to these studies.

Gary Kronk has observed comets for three decades. He also writes extensively about them, providing articles to a number of scientific periodicals and authoring four published books. In June he attended the International Workshop on Cometary Astronomy in Paris, and learned about the extensive research being done by amateurs all over the world.

Following is a brief biography from Gary.

I was born on March 23, 1956. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I have been employed at Washington University in St. Louis since 1985, where I am a programmer analyst. I married my wife Karen in 1981, and we have two sons, David and Michael, who were born in 1987 and 1990, respectively.

My interest in astronomy began in 1965. Although I was very interested in the Mercury and Gemini space programs while in grade school, it was Mariner 4's close-up images of Mars on July 14 of that year that hooked me on this hobby. I received my first telescope, a 1.5-inch refractor, during Christmas of 1965, and spent the next two years observing the moon, which was about the only thing worth looking at with such a telescope. Since then I have purchased a number of telescopes, but mostly observe comets with 20x80 binoculars, a 120-mm refractor, and a 33-cm reflector.

Comet Kohoutek of 1973/1974 was a life changing event for me. It had been discovered in March of that year and, by early April, newspapers and magazines were already beginning to promote the comet as the possible "comet of the century." I had never seen a comet and had read very little about them up to that point. But the newspaper stories intrigued me. I became so interested that I began researching comets in my high school library around mid-November 1973 and wrote a paper for a class. I saw Kohoutek for the first time on the morning of November 30. During the first half of December, my teacher liked my comet paper so much she had it published in the local newspaper. So, in the course of one month, I made my first of nearly 2000 visual comet observations, took my first steps in my quest to research comets, and was published for the first time.

I have been published in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Icarus, Mercury, the Journal of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, Meteor News, the Journal of the International Meteor Organization, and numerous club newsletters.

I have had four books published, with two more expected in the next three years. The published books are Comets: A Descriptive Catalog (1984), Meteor Showers (1988), Cometography, volume 1 (1999), and Cometography, volume 2 (2004). Volumes 3 and 4 of my Cometography series should be published within the next three years. The Cometography series is being published by Cambridge University Press.

Other highlights in my life include:
*I was one of 39 scientists invited to participate in NASA's Leonid MAC 1999 to study the Leonid meteor shower
*I received the 1999 Charles P. Olivier Award from the American Meteor Society in 1999
*I am a guest speaker for the St. Louis Academy of Sciences and have spoken to over 1400 children about Astronomy during the last 5 years.
*I spoke about the Leonids at Biosphere II in 2002 November
*I was honored by having minor planet 48300 named "Kronk" in 2004 January.
*I was the keynote speaker at the International Workshop on Cometary Astronomy in Paris in 2004 June.
*I will be speaking at the 2004 Illinois Dark Skies Star Party in 2004 September