Something Strange? Who Ya Gonna Call?
This is the second in a series of six articles on astronomy research at Harvard.
About a year ago, a retired school teacher and amateur astronomer in England sighted an object in the sky traveling toward Earth. He immediatley contacted Brian Marsden, director of the Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams located near the Quad, and within hours, thousands of astronomers across the globe had received descriptions of the sighting.
Marsden had received reports of a similar sighting from other sources and determined that they were the same object. Astronomers in California photographed the region of suspicion, and, shortly after, they confirmed that the object was a comet--one which had come closer to Earth than any other comet in the past 200 years.
The astronomer describes the incident as one of high drama and tension: "Once the press heard about it, we had over 1000 calls."
Such adventures, however, are par for the course for Marsden, who for 16 years has been responsible for the world-wide alert of professional and amatcur astronomers about unusual astronomical occurrences.
As nead of the Bureau of Astromomical Telegrams, he runs a network that zips word of the latest astronomical discoveries over telegraph wires to stations around the world. The information-including the time of the citing and its specific celestial location-gets to astronomers within moments, in plenty of time for observers to catch a nova while it is still brightening or view a new found comet before it disappears.
Part of the joint Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics since 1963, the Bureau is internationally recognized as the first source of information on all types of astronomical observations, whether amateur or professional.
"When something important I sighted you just can't sit back and twiddle your thumbs. Someone has to scramble to notify others," says Profesor of Astronomy Jonathan E. Grindlay, explaining that fast and accurate notification is crucial to properly identify heavenly bodies.
Besides being one of the most frequently quoted astronomers, Marsden has accumulated a wealth of interesting, on the job experiences.
For example, he played a key role in the verification of the planet Uranus's rings. While it has long been known that a ring of material encircles Saturn, scientists only speculated that Uranus has its own set of rings. In 1977, MIT astronomer James Elliot, working in the Indian Ocean, observed the planet as it passed in front of a star. The star suddenly grew dim then bright five consecutive times-concrete evidence of rings.
Elliot, immediately phoned Marsden, who then calculated that a one kilometer gap separated each ring. He also made preliminery findings on the content of the rings. From there it was just a matter of hours before researchers all over the world received news of the discovery through Marsden's telegram network.
Since that time, a number of studies have been done on the rings, and today there is even speculation that Neptune has rings.
Marsden's system, however, is most useful in handling transient phenomena-short-lived astronomical happenings.
The way the Bureau works is quite simple: when someone sights an unusual occurance-most commonly an asteriod, nova, supernova or comet-he contacts Marsden, who then performs some preliminary calculations to verify the accuracy of the report. He then sends out a telegram from the telex machine located in his office to the service's 800 subscribers.
"To get the information in weeks or months would be useless," says Norbert H. Bartel, a research associate in the Harvard College Observatory, who studies supernovae-extremely shortlived phenomena.
Those who recieve the report pay a fee of $.36 to $.60 for each of the approximately 125 messages received each year.
One of Marsden's busiest times, he recalls, was in 1975 during the nova in Cygnus, one of the brighest novas-star formations-of this century. Marsden received a report in his office on the Friday afternoon of the Labor Day weekend from an astronomer in Japan.
At about 6 p.m. that same day, additional reports of the nova began pouring in from Europe, and overnight over 30 telegrams arrived in his office. The barrage continued until Monday when Marsden decided to write a longer more comprehensive circular of the complete list of citings.
"He goes above and beyond the call of duty. He's also always right on the mark when it comes to making the preliminary calculations." Grindlay says.
While Marsden has been running the Bureau for 16 years, the idea of an astronomical information clearinghouse dates back to the early 19th century when information of interesting astronomical phenomena was reported through newsletters.
In 1873, the Atlantic Cable Company arranged for the transmission of 10 free telegrams between Washington D.C. and Greenwich, England for astronomical reports, but attained only partial success.
In the early 1900's in the U.S., astronomical sightings were handled primarily by the Harvard Observatory. In 1964, a leading Denmark observatory announced that it could no longer successfully operate the Bureau, and it transferred the program to the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. One year later, Professor of Astronomy Owen J. Gingerich assumed the directorship of the Bureau, and Marsden took over the reigns in 1968.
"Marsden arrived on the scene as a person interested in comets," Gingerich recalls. "At the time, there was a bright comet which caused an enormous stir, and he was on deck to help out. At that time I felt it was reasonable for him to take over." Gingerich remained on hand as an associate director.
Since the end of Gingerich's tenure as Bureau chief, it has changed considerably, he says, primarily as a result of advances in the field of astrophysics. In the 1960s, for example, the reports of comet sightings and planet locations dominated the information released, but today such information is commonly supplemented by reports of newer phenomena such as pulsars.
Marsden, a native of Cambridge. England is also recognized as an expert in comet studies. In the early 1950's he concentrated on mathematical astrophysics such as calculating comets' orbits around the sun. He became the first person to calculate new orbits with a high speed computer.
"Over the past 15 years, he has given an absolutely heroic devotion to this If something important surfaced at 3 a.m. he'd be up and telephoning the west coast in minutes." Gingerich says.
Marsden says that about two of every three reports he recieves end up being a "false alarm," but most of these are just honest mistakes.
The most common error is reporting a comet cited near a planet which is usually just a "ghost image" of the bright object, he explains.
He does, however, receive his share of "nut calls," he says. "The worst one was a man who called and said he had seen an object in front of the sun approaching Earth. We told him it was a flock of birds or a balloon."
The observer, convinced of the accuracy of his citing, persisted. "We tried to be nice, but the abuse he subjected us to was phenomenal." Marsden says. "He wrote papers and drew pictures of a sort of his supposed object with craters. He continued for two years until 1982. He wrote some really threatening stuff too."
In another case, an amateur astronomer in Ohio reported sighting a comet on New Years Eve, and went as far as to notify the press about it. Maraden, unable to locate the comet in the sky, reported that the comet remianed unconfirmed. A short while later a telegram came in staling that astronomers in Japan confirmed the citing. Although the telegram was signed "Tokyo Observatory" Marsden checked the routing on the envelope which showed that the telegram came from Ohio.
"People got carried away and make mistakes. There are all sorts of pitfalls," Marsden says.
Occasionally, Marsden also recieves UPO reports, but he tends to disregard them. "I usually tell them to contact their local UF organization," he says.
Marsden admits that the job is often routine. Nevertheless, he finds it rewarding even in its dull moments.
"It's a good way to keep up with my original interest in comets. At times it can be tiresome, and sometimes the phone rings for hours on end. But its the only way people will be informed," he says