comet
(saao.ac.za)
  • A South African astronomer has found a new comet.
  • Comets are generally named after the people who find them, so this one goes by moniker C/2020 S3 (Erasmus).
  • The comet was initially flagged as a potential “near-Earth” asteroid.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider South Africa. 

A South African astronomer has discovered a new comet – and it has been named after him.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced that Dr Nicolas Erasmus made the discovery from four 30-second exposures taken on September 17 by the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) program. The images were taken by ATLAS-MLO  at Mauna Loa, Hawaii.

Comets are generally named after the people who find them, so this one goes by moniker C/2020 S3 (Erasmus).

The comet was initially flagged as a potential “near-Earth” asteroid by ATLAS’s automated algorithms – the software then posted the images on the system’s nightly discovery page. Images are usually vetted by scientists, as the algorithm generates many false positives.

“While doing the nightly vetting [which he does every three weeks, a duty shared with two others] I noticed the object in the discovery images had a faint coma [comet-like shape], and after double checking with my other ATLAS colleagues that they also see a coma, I notified the MPC around 18.30 SAST that this was a potential comet discovery,” said Erasmus.

The MPC – Minor Planet Centre, which is the official international body that deals with astrometric observations and orbits of minor planets (asteroids) and comets – confirmed the discovery on Sunday, 20 September.

Last year, the International Astronomical Union invited South Africans to vote on the new name for an exoplanet. The planet WASP-62b and its host star WASP-62 were discovered using SuperWASP, one of the telescopes near Sutherland in the Northern Cape. Following a vote, they were named Krotoa (planet) and Naledi (star).

See also: South Africans can vote to name a new planet – and one of the short-listed names is a local plant that gets you high

The South African Astronomical Observatory will be installing a new ATLAS telescope in Sutherland in early 2021. The ATLAS project is a collaboration between the University of Hawaii ATLAS Project and SAAO. 

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