Professional Twenty-First Century Comet Hunters
For centuries comets have been discovered by both amateur and professional hunters, but now that we are in the twenty-first century amateurs have never faced such stiff competition. In the nineteenth century era, prior to routine astrophotography, where visual patrols were the only form of discovery possible, amateurs and professionals had the same tools to accomplish the job: a modest aperture telescope and the sheer determination to spend hundreds of hours per year sweeping the skies and the regions just above the solar twilight glare, where small perihelion distance comets are first likely to brighten and move within detection range. In fact the only real difference between amateurs and professionals of the visual comet discovery era was that professionals were associated with an observatory appointment and a few successful amateur comet discoverers were actually promoted to a professional status once they had discovered their first few comets. In nineteenth century America cash prizes were awarded for comet discoveries and so even if you were an amateur comet hunter there was money to be made. Even during the era of photography amateur astronomers still discovered substantial numbers of comets as the dark adapted human eye and the formidable human brain can efficiently scan the skies in real time without any need to develop, fix and inspect the film hours or days later. However, since the 1990s the automated CCD patrols have seriously dented amateur comet hunting prospects and so it is worth understanding just how these systems operate if we amateurs stand any chance of beating them to a comet.