As the star-gazers among us well know, our night sky is currently graced by a visitor – comet Lulin, which makes its closest approach to Earth on February 24, 2009. More formally known as C/2007 N3, Lulin is a non-periodic comet that will make only a single sweep by our Sun before heading back to interstellar space. It made its closest approach to the Sun on January 10, and is now passing at a distance of 0.4 astronomical units from Earth on its way out of the solar system.
To members of The Planetary Society, however, comet Lulin is special in another way as well: It was co-discovered by astronomer Quanzhi Ye, recipient of a Planetary Society Shoemaker NEO grant for 2007. He made the discovery using the equipment he pruchased with the grant money.
Quanzhi Ye is only 19 years old, and a resident of the city of Guangzhou in southern China. He was 18 when he applied for our Shoemaker NEO grant but already an accomplished astronomer, principal investigator of the sky survey at the Lulin Observatory in Taiwan. His request was modest: $2,000 to purchase a laptop and software to run a 16-inch automated telescope. We gave it to him, believing that this young astronomer is a good investment.
We were not disappointed. On July 11, 2007, astronomer Lin Chi-Sheng took images of the night sky with the Lulin Observatory's 16 inch telescope. Working over the images on his brand new laptop, Quanzhi Ye noticed an object moving through the sky. Initially the object was thought to be an asteroid, but a week later observations revealed a faint coma. This meant that the space-rock was in fact a comet, and it was given the designation C/2007 N3. Eighteen months later the comet, now known popularly as "Lulin," is making its closest approach to Earth and is the object of attention of amateur and professional astronomers the world over. And all of it was made possible by the young Chinese astronomer, and the outstanding use he made of his Shoemaker Grant.
"The laptop bought with the fund from Shoemaker NEO Grant was used when discovering Comet Lulin and many other asteroids (including providing follow-up observations for NEOs)," Quanzhi Ye wrote in an e-mail message. "It's very important!"
Remarkably, comet Lulin was not Quanzhi Ye's only discovery that month. Only days after he detected the comet, Ye teamed up with another Shoemaker grant recipient, Jean-Claude Pelle who observes the skies from Tahiti. Working together the two managed to track down a previously unknown Near Earth Object, which has since been designated 2007 NL1. The discoveries of both the comet and the NEO came shortly after we awarded Shoemaker grants to both Ye and Pelle. Thank you to both for proving us so right so quickly!
For suggestions on how to observe Comet Lulin, and to learn about its unusual "antitail," check out Emily Lakdawalla's blog. And as you look up at comet streaking through the sky, remember that The Planetary Society and all its members played a crucial role in this discovery. For the detection of Comet Lulin we can truly say – "we made it happen!"