Story of the month

Vance Petriew and his daughter, near the scope used for the discovery. In the corner: Comet Petriew on Aug 24 01  

presented by Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory, Ceccano (FR) Italy

In this section we will introduce some stories related to the world of astronomy. If you have an interesting experience you would like to share with us, feel free to contact us!

22 Nov. 2001. This month we present the fascinating experience of Vance Petriew, Canada, who discovered his "own" comet.


Comet Petriew Discovery
(By Vance Petriew November 16, 2001)

The 2001, Saskatchewan Summer Star Party (SSSP) in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park would be an event I'll remember for the rest of my life. My wife and I were really looking forward to a weekend under the stars with our new 20" Obsession telescope ( We had ordered the telescope in September of 2000 and finally received the mirror in July 2001. The SSSP was going to be the first "really" dark location to test the performance of the telescope since receiving it. We were also a little unsure what the weekend might hold in store for us since our daughter, Emily, was only 8 months old and not sleeping through the night yet. As every new parent knows, sleep is a major concern with a young baby.

We set out from Regina, Saskatchewan on our 4-hour trip to darker skies. We checked into the hotel and proceeded to the Meadows to set up the telescope before it got dark. The telescope performed well but as with any new instrument, it takes a few months to get familiar with it. The first night of observing was very good with pockets of warm air drifting through to blur the images for short periods of time. We learned our lesson with Emily since she slept as we observed. When we got back to the hotel at 4:00 am, she woke up and wanted to play. We never did get caught up on sleep for the rest of the weekend.

We spent most of Friday, August 17th, taking shifts with Emily and grabbing as much sleep as we could. We arrived at the Meadows late after giving an evening presentation to the attendees of the star party. I set up the telescope in the dark and didn't enjoy it too much since my laser collimator was out of alignment and needed fixing. I used a flashlight and the film canister to do the collimation. It seemed to work all right but the images were not crisp. I tried for Pease-1 again but the atmosphere wouldn't cooperate for a glimpse.

Alan Dyer came by the telescope for about three hours to do some observing. He really enjoyed some of the faint objects and he used the telescope to find the Crescent Nebula. There were quite a few people around my telescope so I decided to show them Stephan's Quintet. I started by finding the galaxy, NGC 7331 in Pegasus. I got mixed up with my directions and went the wrong way only to stumble across a group of galaxies in the opposite direction of NGC 7331. Ooops! Alan Dyer corrected me and I went the correct way to find Stephan's Quintet. I was relieved since those other galaxies were quite a bit fainter that I remembered Stephan's Quintet being. This wasn't the first time I navigated in the wrong direction and wouldn't be the last. Jones-1 was also an easy target for the 20" as were many other wonderful objects that night.

Most people started packing up their telescopes around 3:30 am. I didn't feel like it yet since Jenn and Emily went back to the hotel around 2:00 am. Around 3:45 am, I tried looking for M1 for the first time with the telescope. For some reason, I started star hopping from the wrong star. I cruised around the area for a couple of minutes hoping to spot M1 while I was scanning but instead, I stumbled across a faint fuzzy object just south of β Tau. I almost passed it over since I was pretty sure it was another galaxy and not M1. M1 should have been brighter than this object or so I thought. I went to the laptop to see if I could find out what this object was.

Just at that time, Rick Huziak from the Saskatoon Centre, appeared out of nowhere for the first time that night and posed the question "What are you looking at?" I couldn't really answer his question. I told him that I thought it was a galaxy. After studying it for a couple of minutes, he figured it was probably a comet since the coma seemed to extend on for a long ways without having a well-defined edge. My laptop didn't show any comets in that area of the sky but my comet data was also a month old. I had downloaded it a month earlier when I received my mirror. Rick suggested that we sketch the field. I didn't have a pen or paper since I was not planning to do anything but visual observing during the star party. I figured out exactly where the object was by using β Tau as a reference. It was approximately 2 degrees away towards the ecliptic. Steve Meister and Michael Plante from the Regina Centre were also there and had to take a look at the comet. They were the third and fourth people to see the comet. When Rick and I were sure where the comet was in the sky, Rick went back to his telescope to get some paper and when he came back, he sketched the field. Using my 31 mm Nagler with a one-degree field of view at 80x, we made our observations of the comet. After Rick completed the sketch, he went back to his telescope to dig up his current comet data for all known comets brighter than magnitude 12. I didn't know it at the time, but his data was also nearly a month old. Rick also did various observations in his 10" reflector using magnifications up to 300x. He also alerted his friend, Paul Campbell from the Edmonton Centre to the comet. Paul also found the comet in his 12.5" reflector to confirm the observation.

About 30 minutes later (around 4:45 am), Rick returned with Paul to take a look at it through the Obsession and to see if we could detect how far it had moved. It had moved approximately 2' in the eyepiece over that hour. Paul told us his story of how he had star hopped through that region down to M1 earlier in the evening and didn't come across the comet. He was nearly dumb-struck as he collapsed into the nearby lawn chair trying to figure out how he missed it. We all smiled.

At 5:00 am, we were pretty confident with our observations and predicted the magnitude at 12.0. We later revised this to magnitude 11.0. The coma was approximately 3' in diameter. We packed up the scopes around 5:00 am since the sun was rising and the clouds just started floating in. Rick and I went to the hotel and sat in the lobby where the payphone was. Rick wrote out the observing report up on a piece of paper to get the details as close as possible. We calculated its position in the sky to be R.A. 5 hours 31.9 minutes and Declination +28 degrees 8 minutes. The comet had a bright nucleus and a coma that slowly diffused into the background darkness. No elongation of the coma or tail was detected. I looked up the phone number for the International Astronomical Union in the Observer's Handbook that Rick brought along. I used the payphone in the lobby at the Cypress Hills Resort Inn and phoned the first number in the handbook. There was no answer at Brian Marsden's office. I phoned the second number, which was Dan Green's office and got an answering machine. I left the message we had prepared and then decided for some sleep. I took Rick back out to the Meadows in the van and came back to the hotel. All throughout the night, I still felt that someone else in the world had found it already since the new moon in August is a great time to hold star parties. Surely someone at "Starfest" would have found it a couple of hours earlier.

Jennifer and Emily were already awake when I returned but Emily was just going back to sleep. I told my wife, Jennifer, about what had happened. Because it was so late in the morning, she thought that I had decided to stay out at the Meadows in the tent. We were tired and went back to sleep around 6:45 am. Emily got up again at 8:00 am.

Potential Comet 3:48 am August 18, 2001
Magnitude 11.0
R.A. 5hrs 31.9 minutes
Dec. +28 degrees 8 minutes
Rick came over about 3:50 am.

The next morning, I checked my email and found an email message from Dan Green. Apparently, he had tried phoning me at our house in Regina. In his email, he asked for some information which I promptly sent to him. I also downloaded the latest comet data from the CFA's (Centre for Astrophysics) web site at After searching the existing comet data, no matches were found for the comet observation. Rick and I suspected that it could be comet Wild 4 but it was nearly 4 degrees away and shining at magnitude 19.8. Not a likely candidate but one worth considering. We still didn't want to get our hopes up too high.

Things were looking up and I received another email for Dan Green around supper time on Saturday announcing that he had contacted observers in Europe and North America to look for the comet. Reading between the lines, it was pretty clear that nothing matched the observation we had submitted so things were looking up! Dan mentioned in his email that he hoped that the comet was REAL and that it was NEW. At that point, there were only two things going through my mind: can anyone find it again and am I the only one to spot this comet?

Just before Alan Dyer's evening presentation, I made a special announcement in front of everyone gathered there at the SSSP. I told them that I had potentially found a comet the night before and that Richard Huziak and I had put in an observation to the International Astronomical Union in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The email I received back indicated that it could potentially be a new comet. The crowd gasped and started cheering and clapping. I explained that it would be like a dream come true as I nearly broke out in tears. I invited everyone to come over and take a look at it if we could find it again.

-----Original Message-----
From: Dan Green 
Sent: Saturday, August 18, 2001 4:07 PM
To: Petriew, Vance
Subject: possible comet

Thanks for the additional information, Vance. I've contacted
several observers in Europe and North America to try and get
confirmation and some accurate astrometry (if confirmed).
If you get a chance to observe it tonight, please note the
position as accurately as possible and the time as accurately
as possible and forward that by e-mail ASAP. We're hoping it's
new and REAL!

Cheers, Dan Green


Daniel W. E. Green 
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.

After Alan's excellent talk on the Milky Way, I went out to the Meadows. Jennifer stayed in the hotel to look after Emily. Later, she had wished that she had come out. I was happy she decided to get some sleep instead since the weather was not good and she didn't miss anything. The wind was gusting and cold so I left the light shroud off so the telescope wouldn't blow around like a weather vane.

Alan Dyer came over as did many other people (about 30 or 40) and we sat and chatted about astronomy related topics. Alan told us about the light pollution initiative that the City of Calgary was undertaking. We chatted about many topics and by midnight, most people went back to their telescopes to retire for the evening. The cloudy skies were looking grim in the west. Don Moreau, a friend of mine that got me back into astronomy, stayed out at the Meadows with me. About 1:30 am, an opening in the clouds started to appear in the southern sky. Could the opening be coming our way? It eventually came overhead and Don went looking for a few objects through the thin clouds. I decided that I had rested enough in the chair and began to collimate the telescope in the dark with the LaserMax eventhough it needed fixing. We waited and the sky started to clear in the north as Auriga climbed above the trees. Unfortunately, there was one cloud blocking the view in the area of the comet eventhough the whole northern sky had cleared. After what seemed like a half an hour, the cloud partially moved off. I found the star field where the comet was the night before through the hazy clouds and proceeded to pan in the direction that I though the comet was moving. No luck. After about 5 minutes, I gave up and started panning all around that part of the sky. I eventually found it and yelled out to Rick that I had found it again. He came over right away as did many of the other astronomers that were in the area. At that point, I was very happy since that confirmed that the object was indeed REAL! Only one question left to answer, was it NEW? The clouds were moving in fast. Don Moreau had a look at it before Rick arrived so we started to plot its position against the star charts. After about 3 minutes of trying, the clouds moved in. We promptly packed up the telescope as a major wind started blowing and some very dark and menacing thunderclouds started to come overhead. Lightning lit up the Meadows like daylight as we packed the telescope into the van in record time. The first raindrops started falling just as I closed the hatch. We heard a crash from down the Meadows from someone's telescope blowing over.

Don Moreau went back to the hotel and I stuck around and helped turn things over so the wind wouldn't blow them away. We sat outside on the picnic table watching the clouds fly overhead. I kept thinking about Dan Green's comment about the object being real and how we now confirmed that it was real. I was hoping that somewhere in the world it would be clear enough to allow the professionals to find it and confirm the sighting like we did. As we sat on the picnic table, a small clearing behind the storm looked like it might come overhead but when it came close, it headed the wrong direction. We decided that it was not worth staying up anymore hoping for one more glimpse. I hopped in the van and headed back to the hotel around 3:00 am. When I got to the hotel, Emily was just finishing eating and was fast asleep. I told Jennifer about the evening and that she didn't miss much. We went to bed at 3:30 am because we were both very tired.

Potential Comet 2:20 am
Magnitude 11.0
We found the potential comet but only had a few minutes to locate its position in the sky. We couldn't do it. The view of the comet was faint because it was so low on the horizon and a thin haze further reduced its brightness. I'm sure it would not have been visible in a 12" telescope because it was that faint through the hazy clouds. The nucleus could be seen and the inner coma as well. At least we had found it again so we knew it was real. Of course, we would have to wait to find out if it was new.

Sunday morning I awoke and checked my email around 10:00 am. There was no word from Dan Green. I had many people come up and wish me luck with the discovery as they were checking out of the hotel. Jennifer and I packed up the van and checked out of the hotel at 11:00 am. We ate breakfast in the restaurant with members of the Regina Centre. After that, I thought about checking my email again but decided that it could wait. We headed out to the Meadows to take down our tent and pack up the rest of our stuff. Sean Ceasar and Gail Wise from the Winnipeg Centre were there so we visited with them for quite a while. I showed them the position where the comet should be since they were staying at the Meadows for another night. John Mulvenna, from the Regina Centre, also came over for a chat while we were packing up. We took a few pictures and then left the park around 2:00 pm. Emily did very good on the way home and slept most of the way. Jennifer entertained her for the last hour of the ride home.

When we arrived home, I went downstairs to check my email. The confirmation from Dan Green came in at 11:21 am so had I checked my email before heading to the Meadows, I would have known the outcome. It was officially named C/2001 Q2 by CBAT (Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams). I also had two congratulation emails from Maik Meyer in Germany and from Greg Bryant in Australia with the confirmation. Apparently, they knew about the final confirmation before I did! I came upstairs and told Jennifer the news. We both rejoiced! I struggled to hold back tears of joy since the whole weekend was one of building excitement with this being the climax! 

-----Original Message-----
From: Dan Green 
Sent: Sunday, August 19, 2001 11:21 AM
To: Petriew, Vance
Cc: Huziak, Richard
Subject: comet 2001 Q2

Congratulations! It looks like you have a confirmation:
Circular No. 7686
Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams
Mailstop 18, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
IAUSUBS@CFA.HARVARD.EDU or FAX 617-495-7231 (subscriptions)
URL ISSN 0081-0304
Phone 617-495-7440/7244/7444 (for emergency use only)

COMET 2001 Q2
Vance Avery Petriew, Regina, SK, reports his visual discovery
of a comet during a star party at Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan, as
shown below. The object's presence was also confirmed visually by
R. Huziak (0.25-m reflector) and P. Campbell (0.32-m reflector) at
Cypress Hills. The observations by A. Hale were made following a
request by the Central Bureau.

2001 UT R.A. (2000) Decl. m1 Observer 
Aug. 18.42 5 31.9 +28 08 11.0 Petriew
19.45502 5 37 59.10 +27 47 07.8 13.2 Hale
19.46173 5 38 01.45 +27 46 58.4 13.0 "
19.47459 5 38 05.77 +27 46 45.4 13.4 "
19.48078 5 38 07.88 +27 46 36.9 13.4 "

V. A. Petriew (Cypress Hills, SK). Round coma of diameter 3' with
condensed nucleus and no tail. 0.51-m f/5 reflector at 80x.
Motion about 2' to the southeast over an hour. Magnitude
A. Hale (Cloudcroft, NM). 0.20-m Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector +
CCD. Visual observations with a 0.41-m reflector on Aug. 19.47
showed a coma diameter of 2'.5 and m_1 = 11.0.

(C) Copyright 2001 CBAT 
2001 August 19 (7686) Daniel W. E. Green


Daniel W. E. Green
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.

There were five phone calls from the local newspaper, the Leader Post, on our phone since one of the local club members, Lorne Harasen, had alerted them of the possible discovery. I started phoning all my family letting them know about the comet discovery. Jennifer indicated that she would like to see the comet in the morning if it were clear so with that in mind, we went to sleep.

On Monday morning, Emily awoke around 2:30 am so at 3:00 am, Jennifer woke me up because it was clear. We packed Emily into the van and headed out to White Butte to take a look at the comet again. Understandably so, Jennifer wanted to see it before going to work on Monday afternoon. The telescope setup was quite easy and by 4:00 am, we had located the comet and looked at it for a while. It was difficult to pinpoint it on the star charts but I finally did it. I don't sketch things in the eyepiece but for this occasion, I did my first sketch ever of the comet and its position. After that, we took a quick look at Jupiter and Saturn before the morning twilight started getting too bright. Emily awoke as we were taking down the telescope. We finally crawled back into bed around 5:00 am completing the third consecutive night that I had viewed the comet. 

C/2001 Q2
Magnitude 10.5
R.A. 5h 42m 7s
Dec. +28 43' 23"
Found the comet for the third night in a row. The nucleus was visible but fainter than at Cypress in the morning sky. I thought I detected some elongation to the coma but the twilight was starting to affect the contrast. Still no tail was visible. I sketched the field and calculated its coordinates.

Monday afternoon I went to work and spent most of the day answering emails from around the world and sending links to people to take a look at the first article up on the web posted at Sky and Telescope by Alan Dyer ( Monday evening, I did a photo shoot for the newspaper and answered a few phone calls. While reading my email in the evening, it clicked with me who A.Hale was on the CBAT telegram! Alan Hale, of Hale-Bopp fame, was the one that had confirmed the comet. How cool is that! I also received an email from Maik Meyer mentioning that I was eligible for the Edgar Wilson Award. Another unexpected discovery! Eventhough I was still excited, I managed to get some much-needed sleep.

Tuesday morning got real busy in a hurry! At 6:00 am, I was awakened by a phone call from a local radio station wanting to do an interview. Apparently, my picture was plastered across the front page of the local newspaper and from that point on, the word spread quickly across the country. I started receiving requests for interviews from TV and Radio stations across Canada from as far away as Newfoundland. Over the course of the next week, I did five TV interviews and approximately 30 radio interviews with the farthest one being from Newcastle, Australia. I also had numerous requests for website stories and pictures of the comet. Tuesday was another day of discovery since I found out that they had calculated the orbital period of the comet to be 5.5 years. This meant that the IAU could officially give the comet a name: "P/2001 Q2 (Petriew)" or "Comet Petriew" as I like to call it.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I was fascinating to receive emails from people all over the world. I took the time to reply to every one of them. Email came in from countries like Canada, Mexico, USA, Brazil, UK, Australia, Portugual and many others. I was equally fascinating to hear people tell the story of what they were doing when they saw me on National television. For example, our neighbours, who were vacationing on the East coast, were just sitting down for supper when they saw me on the news. They couldn't believe it was "the guy across the street" who had made the discovery! They were very excited and couldn't wait to get home to talk to me. It truly was exciting to watch the story unfold in so many countries across the world, especially on the web! Dave Chapman, from Nova Scotia, has a wonderfully informative website on Canadian comet discoverers (

One of the highlights of the comet discovery was the communication I had with other people that have discovered comets in Canada. All of them understand what that special feeling is of finding something for the first time and having your name put up into the sky. They all agreed that finding a comet visually was the ultimate thrill. I think Michael Oates from the UK put it best in his email to me:

-----Original Message-----
From: Michael Oates
Sent: Friday, September 21, 2001 7:28 AM
To: Petriew, Vance
Subject: Re: SWAN animation

Vance, I just want to congratulate you on your wonderful discovery, even though I have found 129 comets, I can safely say I would rather trade in quite a few of those for a visual discovery. That may sound daft, but there seems to be something rather special about finding one with your own eyes!



I'm also very appreciative of the number of contacts I have made with others astronomers that share that enthusiasm for the night sky. Many of the seasoned and professional astronomers mentioned how wonderful it was to see an amateur find a comet before the automated telescopes like LINEAR and NEAT. At the time of the discovery, I didn't realize how rare amateur comet discoveries had become over the last few years but I soon learned from Maik Meyer's website (

Eventhough the comet was not especially bright in this pass around the sun, there is a good chance that it will come very close to Earth in future orbits. I'm just grateful that my comet is a short period one since most comet discoverers agree that a short period comet is the next best thing to a big bright one like Hale-Bopp. One of the best things about the comet is that fact that I'll be able to show it to my children and grandchildren for years to come. That makes me very happy!

So what do I say when people ask my how I feel about the comet discovery, "VERY COOL!"

    Vance Petriew


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