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Cymraeg

Amateur astronomer discovers disintegrating comet with help of Cardiff University telescope project

22 March 2010

For immediate release

A leading amateur astronomer has made a major astronomical discovery thanks to a sophisticated educational telescope project led by Cardiff University astronomers.

Amateur astronomer, Nick Howes, has taken the first pictures showing a split in the icy nucleus of Comet C2007 C3 using a remote-controlled telescope through the Faulkes Telescope Project run by experts from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

The project offers access to a pair of remotely controlled telescopes, located on the Hawaiian island of Maui, and at Siding Spring in Australia - via the Internet.

Using the Faulkes Telescope North in Maui, Nick imaged the faint comet in glorious detail, producing a set of six images that showed a secondary condensation trailing the main nucleus. This appears to be a mountain-sized chunk of ice that has broken away from the giant "dirty snowball" that forms the nucleus of a comet.

A second set of images obtained the following day (Friday 19th March) clearly showed that the new fragment is still trailing the comet. It is now hoped that astronomers will follow up Nick’s discovery using instruments such as Hubble Space Telescope.

Nick obtained the images whilst sat at his desk in work in Wiltshire, operating the £5M Hawaiian telescope over the Internet.

Dr Paul Roche, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, who is the Director of the Faulkes Telescope Project said: "We are delighted that Nick was able to capture dramatic images which appear to show that the comet’s nucleus is disintegrating.

"What this illustrates is what is achievable when amateur astronomers can get their hands on such a powerful telescope. We hope to involve schools in observing this comet over the next few weeks, so that we can see what happens to this new fragment."

It’s hoped that this discovery will help encourage others to use the telescope for research and to help make new scientific discoveries. Last year, another amateur astronomer, working with several UK schools and the Faulkes Telescope Project, discovered the fastest-rotating asteroid in the Solar system.

More than 200 UK schools have used the telescopes to help in science lessons, often gathering data that is used by university researchers.

Dr Roche added: "As well as amateur astronomers this project allows researchers from the University to help schools access professional equipment, and learn more about how modern science is really done.

"We hope this discovery will help encourage others to use the Faulkes Telescopes and lead to even more scientific discoveries."

The Faulkes Telescope Project was launched in March 2004 by the Dill Faulkes Educational Trust, as a way of helping to inspire school students to study science and maths.

-Ends-

Notes:

1. Further information

Dr. Paul Roche
Faulkes Telescope Project
School of Physics & Astronomy
Cardiff University,
Mobile 0797 9096750

2. Cardiff School of Physics and Astronomy
Cardiff has a large and successful School of Physics and Astronomy, attracting some 300 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Physics research is focused in two areas: condensed matter physics and optoelectronics. Researchers are using theoretical and practical techniques to answer fundamental questions about the electrical, magnetic and optical properties of new semiconducting materials and investigating the design and fabrication of new optoelectronic devices. The School has extensive facilities for building and investigating devices made from these new materials. The most spectacular results come from ultra-thin sandwich structures. The novel properties of these devices are being exploited in the design of lasers and detectors.

For researchers and students of astronomy, the School offers modern astronomical laboratories with optical, radio and solar telescopes. The University’s Astrophysics Research Group and the Astronomy Instrumentation Research Group are two of the most vigorous in the UK. Members of the groups regularly use the three main British observatories in Hawaii, the Canary Islands and Australia, and they also use the Hubble Space Telescope and other space observatories. There is also an active theory group that uses computers to investigate the physics of stars and galaxies, and a group developing techniques for detecting gravitational waves, a prediction of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

3. Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.