The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published April 21, 1997, in the Wall St. Journal

comet photoComet Hale-Bopp
1997 World (Earth) Tour

Naming comets brings fame, fortune, feuding

By Steven Stecklow
The Wall Street Journal

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. _ As Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp can attest, having your name on the hurtling, dirty iceballs called comets can bring fame and fortune.

Also, feuding.

Eleanor Helin still seethes whenever she hears about Shoemaker-Levy 9, the celebrated comet that crashed into Jupiter three years ago. She says she spotted it five days before Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker and David H. Levy did, and she believes it should also bear the name Helin (pronounced Hel-EEN). Dr. Helin, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., already has her name attached to 17 other comets.

Levy, who disputes her assertion, is still miffed that a comet observed in 1931 by Clyde W. Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, isn't called Comet Tombaugh. Levy, who wrote a biography of Dr. Tombaugh, proposed the name last year to honor him on his 90th birthday. But the idea was flatly rejected because Tombaugh, who has since died, had misidentified it as an asteroid, an orbiting rock.

The ultimate ruler in such cosmic matters is the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, established by the International Astronomical Union. The obscure bureau, founded in 1920 and subsidized by the Smithsonian Institution, is recognized by astronomers around the world as the official arbiter of comet nomenclature.

All reports of new comets must be sent to its cramped offices at an observatory at Harvard University. Originally, notices had to come by telegram, hence the bureau's name. These days, e-mail is preferred. Official recognition by a special committee usually comes in a day or two, once a discovery is confirmed by other sky watchers. The bureau assigns the comet a code designating its place in the sky and when it was sighted. (Discoverers' names appear in parentheses, but that is enough to gain them astronomical immortality.) As many as a dozen new discoveries are announced each year.

Comet-naming rules haven't always been hard and fast, so there have been injustices. ``Undue credit has been given in some instances,'' says Brian G. Marsden, the bureau's director since 1968. Some of the 900 comets discovered to date carry the names of observatory program directors who weren't even at the telescope when they were first sighted. ``That really galls me,'' he says.

To make things fairer, the International Astronomical Union, an organization of professional astronomers, appointed a committee in 1994 to develop written guidelines for comet naming. ``I thought it would take about a week,'' says Chairman Donald Yeomans, a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ``It's actually gone on for the better part of three years.'' He says he has ``a file eight inches thick'' just on the issue of whether comet names should be limited to two discoverers. Since 1939, the limit has been three.

The committee believed it had finally reached a consensus on two, but then a petition arrived from 52 outraged Japanese astronomers. They apparently want to preserve a tradition that has created such monikers as Comet Nishikawa-Takamizawa-Tago. Dr. Yeomans now worries the Japanese will force a vote on the issue at the next meeting of the astronomical union, to be held in Kyoto in August. ``If we throw this thing open to a vote, this group of Japanese astronomers may carry the day,'' he says.

Meanwhile, the committee remains deadlocked on multiple credits for a single person. Right now, there are five different comets named Levy, which even their discoverer agrees can be confusing.

In writing a book on comet hunting called ``The Quest for Comets,'' Levy says, he had trouble dealing with two comets called Ikeya-Seki. ``I kept having to remind people of the difference,'' says the Vail, Ariz., astronomer.

As an alternative, future comets discovered by the same person would carry numbers _ like Levy 1, Levy 2 and so on.

But Dr. Marsden, a committee member with an encyclopedic knowledge of comet history, vehemently objects. ``I could give you pages and pages of stupidities involving those numerals,'' he says.

One example: In the 1950s, an astronomer named Harrington discovered two comets, which became known as Harrington 1 and 2. Then someone realized that Harrington 1 was identical to an earlier comet called Wolf 2. So that comet became known as Wolf-Harrington. That forced Wolf 1 to become just Wolf, and Harrington 2 to become Harrington. ``It is an utter mess,'' Marsden says. Slamming his fist on his desk, he adds, ``If I have my way, all the numerals following the names will disappear.''

Marsden's way is the most controversial of all: downplaying the names of comet discoverers. His system would stop much of the feuding, he says, and lessen the chance an astronomer will become infamous _ which happened to Lubos Kahoutek when a comet he discovered in 1973 put in a disappointing performance. ``Why should his name be associated with flops?'' Marsden asks.

The bureau's comet catalog, for instance, lists Hale-Bopp as C/1995 O1. The code is too complicated to explain, but deciphered, it describes a comet discovered during the second half of July 1995 that won't return for more than 200 years.

Marsden's taxonomy hasn't exactly caught on. Says Levy, who recently attended a weeklong Caribbean ``Comet Cruise'' to view Hale-Bopp with hundreds of stargazers: ``I don't think anybody during the entire seven days ever said they were there to see C/1995 O1.''

Howard Brewington is particularly annoyed at Marsden's parenthetical references to comet discoverers. Brewington says he sold his house and electronics business in South Carolina and left family and friends to move to a mountaintop in New Mexico just to seek out new comets in the dark skies. So far, he has found five, and the last thing he wants is to not get credit. ``I've probably spent $100, 000 of my own money to do that,'' he says.

Two hundred years ago, Brewington would have been out of luck. Comets then were named after the people whose mathematical calculations accurately forecast their return.

English astronomer Edmond Halley wasn't even around to observe the comet that he correctly predicted would reappear in 1758 _ he had died 16 years earlier. The tradition changed in 1831, when the king of Denmark began offering a gold medal to the first person to observe a new comet. That set off a competition that put more focus on the discoverer.

But by the end of the 19th century, only about 15 comets _ the ones that return most frequently _ officially carried the names of people. That all changed in the 1920s when the bureau came into being and greater emphasis was placed on the discoverers' names for all new comets. ``That's when the rot set in,'' Marsden says.

Paradoxically, there's now a small movement by some astronomers to name a comet after Marsden, a 59-year-old Briton, whose specialty, like Halley's, is tracking orbits of previously observed comets. He accurately predicted the return of Comet Swift-Tuttle in 1992, which hadn't been seen since 1862, and some sky watchers argue it should be renamed in his honor. Says Levy: ``When it returns in 2126, it would be awfully nice if people looked up and said, `There goes Marsden's comet.'''

Marsden confesses he isn't necessarily averse to the idea. ``That one, if I do say so myself, was a rather clever piece of work,'' he says.

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