CHARLESTON — Pop culture icon Andy Warhol predicted that, in the future, everybody would be world famous for 15 minutes.
But Charleston stargazer Robert Holmes, Jr. has got that beat: His name is going to live forever, attached to a new comet he discovered. Designated “Comet 2008 N1” when first found hurtling through the heavens by Holmes in 2008, astrophysics tradition decrees that the man who finds it usually has it named in his honor, just like 18th century astronomer Sir Edmund Halley.
“It is a pretty unusual situation to discover a comet,” said Holmes, who makes observations with giant telescopes he builds himself that are so big they have to be lowered in place by crane. “It is just extremely rare, really.”
His discovery earned him the 2009 Edgar Wilson Award from the Smithsonian Institution’s Astrophysical Observatory. Out of five “Edgars” presented in 2009, Holmes was the only astronomer from the United States to get one. He could have chosen to receive the award in person, but he didn’t want to miss any viewing opportunities at his custom-built observatory located on a farm near Charleston.
“If it had been a clear night, I could have missed a lot of observing time,” he explained. “And I don’t want to take away from my job.”
A former professional photographer, the self-taught astronomer is so good at what he does he has been hired full time by NASA to work for its “Near Earth Object Observations Program,” tracking potential Earth-killer asteroids.
Asteroids are chunks of rock that can be miles across whizzing around in space. NASA relies on experts such as Holmes to track, photograph and plot their orbits so scientists can get a heads-up on any fast-moving space rocks that might have Earth’s name on them.
Holmes’ discovery track record includes some 250 asteroids and six supernovae (exploded stars).
Professor Daniel Miller, chairman for mathematics at Millikin University in Decatur, who advises students studying astronomy, said Holmes’ discovery continues a long tradition of comets being found by independent astronomers working alone.
“When we look at Halley (who lived in London from 1656-1742) his whole life was spent hunting comets,” Miller said. “There are actually hundreds of thousands of comets out there, but most are very small and dim.”
Contact Tony Reid at email@example.com or 421-7977.