|The Department Graduate Students Spacecraft Missions|
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Steve Larson, on comets Bennett and Halley
Laurel Wilkening came in with Mike Drake, at the same time, not long after grad school. She went on to become quite an administrator. She was on the International Halley Watch oversight committee. She knew that I was interested in comets, and she encouraged me to propose to participate.
One of my problems, if you will, is that I never got a PhD. I started taking classes in the department, and after taking six units a semester while still working full-time, I didn’t get great grades and I was basically told I didn’t have a future in planetary astronomy.
But I was carrying out this cometary physical characterization program, and so I took her advice and I sent in a proposal. I had done work also on comet Bennett. It showed some fantastic structure at the head of the comet, which I had seen in drawings before. I thought they were figments of someone’s imagination. There were spirals and all kinds of fantastic features, and the comets I had seen up to that point were just fuzzy things. But comet Bennett came along, and by God, there were these spirals. That just absolutely blew me away, and I said, “I’ve got to learn more about these.”
We had a conference on comets, and published a paper on the determining the rotation of the nucleus. It’s like a lawn sprinkler effect; you’re putting stuff out, but because you’re rotating it, it looks like a spiral. I thought that was pretty cool. I had been looking out for other comets that had those kinds of features, so I proposed to be involved in the so-called Near Nuclear Studies Network, which was one of the many subdivisions of the International Halley Watch that specialized in different techniques.
I won an award to be part of that. I was a deputy discipline specialist, is what they called it. That turned out to be another fantastic experience, because I met people from all over the world, did a lot of traveling, and set up this network where we were observing the comet constantly at different longitudes.
Because the work on modeling these jet features on Bennett, I was invited to be a guest investigator on the Soviet Vega spacecraft mission to comet Halley. That made me a member of the Inter-Agency Consultative Group which had been set up to coordinate all the investigations. Those were interesting times, as well. I’ll never forget going down to South Africa. I was able to obtain my very own CCD camera for the first time, to make observations of comet Halley. We had built it so it was portable, so we shipped it down to South Africa, because the comet was more visible down there, and at its brightest during the time of the spacecraft encounters.
I went down with a guy I had hired to actually do the observations, to set things up and start observing, but I had to fly to Moscow for the encounter. I had just sent a telegram to the guy saying, “I’ll be up there at such-and-such a time,” but I never got anything back. I had no idea where to go, who to contact. But they had arranged to have somebody meet me, so it was okay. I went back to Mission Control and observed the data coming back from that encounter, and then that was followed a few days later by going to Darmstadt in Germany where the European Giotto spacecraft flew by.
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