Tuesday, February 21, 2017
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Charles Kowal’s Comets, Moons and Centaurs

    Rose Kowal recalled taking her young son Charles to the Museum of Science in Buffalo, N.Y. where he attended programs about the night sky. She also remembered him building home-made telescopes and using them to peer at the heavens in the backyard of their home.

    Charles T. Kowal graduated from high school at age sixteen in 1957 and moved to Los Angeles, where he attended the University of Southern California and received a bachelor's degree in astronomy. He was hired by the California Institute of Technology to look for supernovae, or exploding stars. From 1961 to 1984, he discovered eighty-one of them, second only to one other astronomer. Kowal's access to the giant telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Mt. Palomar allowed him to search for other objects as well. He discovered many asteroids. Several comets that he found bear his name. In September 1974 he discovered the thirteenth moon of Jupiter, which he named Leda. The following year he found the giant planet's fourteenth moon, Themisto. Since then dozens of more moons have been found.

    But Kowal also devoted much time to searching for distant objects in the Solar System, with dreams of finding a tenth planet. It was in November of 1977 that he discovered something that created a sensation. What he found was a strange object that the press speculated might indeed be the tenth planet. But, moving between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, it was too small and its orbit too eccentric to be a true planet, too far out to be an asteroid, and did not possess the properties of a comet. What Kowal had discovered was a unique body unknown before that time, a distinct new class of Solar System object.

    He named it Chiron, after a mythical half-man, half-horse, or Centaur. Since 1992, dozens of Centaurian objects have been discovered, and it is thought that they are escapees from the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of the planet Pluto. In 1979, Kowal was awarded the James Craig Watson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for his noteworthy discoveries. But he was not done yet.

    In 1980 while rummaging through Galileo's notebooks, Kowal found that the renaissance Italian astronomer had seen the planet Neptune in 1612 and 1613, 135 years before it was "officially" discovered.

    By 1985, Kowal decided to move on to a new specialty. That year he accepted a position at the Space Technology Institute in Baltimore, with an opportunity to work with the Hubble Space Telescope. As operations astronomer, he monitored the instruments aboard the Hubble, checked the quality of data, and repointed the telescope. He was the first person to see many of the fascinating photographs transmitted to Earth by Hubble.

Charles T. Kowal obtained this photograph on 1976 December 13.27, using the 122-cm Schmidt telescope. It is an 8-minute exposure on Kodak 103a-O film. The comet's magnitude was estimated as 16. This is most likely the "B" component observed during early 1916. North is up and east is left. (from reference.)

    Kowal transferred to a job at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland in 1996 where he went to work on the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft, or NEAR. He wrote computer programs for the mission, which sent the satellite into orbit around the asteroid Eros, eventually landing on it in 2001. Kowal had now transitioned from the position of astronomer to aerospace engineer. He later was involved with a spacecraft called TIMED, that studied the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

    In 2002, astronomers who discovered a large Kuiper Belt object beyond Pluto went back to old photographic plates that Kowal had taken in 1982, and found that he had photographed but overlooked it back then. Using the old plates, they were able to calculate its specific orbit.

    Charles Kowal retired in 2006. During his career he published dozens of scientific articles and wrote the book  Asteroids: Their Nature and Utilization, which was released in 1988. His accomplishments and discoveries certainly rank him as one of the most important astronomers of the last half of the twentieth century.     

Some of Charles Kowal books are available on amazon. Below is the link toone of them:

Asteroids Their Nature and Utilization: Their Nature and Utilization (Wiley-Praxis Series in Astronomy and Astrophysics)

Read a book The White House in Mourning: Deaths and Funerals of Presidents in Office , by Martin Nowak about the US presidents

I recommend a book about Galileo: The Essential Galileo, by Maurice A. Finocchiaro

Link to  Wikipedia article about Charles Kowal

Check also the article about Nicolaus Copernicus hisTheory and Times and Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus


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