It was so faint amid the star-freckled blackness that professional star-gazer Lin Chi-sheng (林啟生) missed it as he photographed the heavens from Lulin Observatory, Nantou County, earlier this month.
Luckily, Lin's camera, recording time-lapse images of space through the observatory's telescope, didn't miss it -- a mighty chunk of ice and rock "a few kilometers" in diameter and hurtling toward Earth: "Asteroid C/2007-N3."
Since named "Lulin Comet," the galactic "dirty snowball" -- as an observatory press release calls it -- won't mean much to the average terrestrial, except perhaps on Feb. 27, 2009, when the comet will likely become visible to the naked eye as it cruises within 60 million kilometers of Earth -- a "close shave" in astronomical terms.
For Taiwan, however, Lulin Comet and a smaller "near-earth asteroid" (NEA) captured in the same photograph are the first discoveries of their kind by local astronomers -- a rare find that puts the nation on the map in the global astronomical community.
"It seemed like just another night," Lin told a press conference yesterday, referring to his July 11 late shift at the remote, mountaintop observatory.
But Lin's camera was trained on a lucky slice of sky that evening, snapping shots of a starry patch between Jupiter and Saturn. Beating fantastic odds, a comet and a 1km-wide NEA made it into the frame, said Lee Lou-chuang (李羅權), president of National Central University, which runs the Observatory.
"This is Taiwan's first discovery of a comet and its first discovery of an NEA," Lee said.
The comet was also the first such object to be named after a place or person in Taiwan, the press release said, adding that, statistically, only one in 100 discovered asteroids qualifies as an NEA, and only one celestial body among 1,000 discovered qualifies as a comet.
Asked what the trick is behind snapping such revealing pictures of space, Lulin Observatory director Lin Hung-chin (林宏欽) said: "It's just luck really."
But, in an interesting political twist to the celestial find, astronomers yesterday admitted that China's cooperation was key in identifying the objects.
While cross-strait relations on many fronts continue to fizzle, cross-strait astronomical cooperation has flourished, they said. The two finds announced yesterday, for example, were facilitated by the "Lulin Sky Survey," a Lulin Observatory-based program that pools the efforts of Taiwanese and Chinese star-gazers to catalogue the sky, Lin Chi-sheng said.
Lacking a high-powered telescope of their own, Chinese astronomers contribute to the program by selecting areas of the sky for the Lulin Observatory to watch and photograph, and by analyzing the photos, he said. Chinese participants, he said, were the ones who had first detected the comet and NEA in the photographs.
US astronomer James Young at the Table Mountain Observatory in California later confirmed the finds, the press release said.
As the only country in Asia scheduled to participate in "Pan-STARRS," a US-based program focused on finding asteroids on a collision course with Earth, Taiwan is also working closely with astronomers in the West, Lee said.
Scheduled to begin next month, the Hawaii-based program will call on US Air Force and University of Hawaii resources, as well as observatories in the UK and Germany, according to the Pan-STARRS' Web site.
Taiwan, observatory officials said, will contribute by searching the heavens with its high-powered telescope for dangerous asteroids.
"If we could find an asteroid with the potential to hit the Earth, that would be very interesting," Lee said, his scientific curiosity apparently trumping any fear of annihilation. "That'd be worse than global warming."
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