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Steve Larson, on the formation of the Catalina Sky Survey
In the early nineties, I got a call from a student over at Steward [Timothy Spahr], who contacted Ray White and told him he was interested in comets. Ray said, “Well, you’d better contact Steve Larson over at LPL.” So he did, and he was willing to work for free just to get involved. I took him on. He wanted to discover a comet.
The Schmidt Telescope that Kuiper built for Pat Roemer hardly ever got used. I showed him how to use it and how to develop films and all that. He ended up searching the sky for comets, and he found a couple. He also found a couple Earth-approaching asteroids.
This was just after the extension of the Halley Watch when Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted Jupiter. Because I had so many contacts I was able to put together a network of people to observe that from the ground for the five-day duration of all those impacts. That was a whole other little project. We got very successful observations from the four major telescopes.
During that time I was attending the Lunar and Planetary Science conference in Houston every year, which is more for geologists, and that’s when I hooked up with Gene Shoemaker. Of course, he had a program for discovering comets, and much of my comet characterization was observing those comets, and in some cases observing near-Earth asteroids that turned out to be comets. I got to know him, and he was the one who really got me believing in near-Earth objects as being an interesting subject. Of course the discovery of the Chicxulub crater up in Yucatan kind of cemented the concept.
Tim and I started working on adapting that to the Schmidt Telescope up here that hadn’t been used in years. For the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact we were able to get a second CCD to replace the original Halley Watch CCD, which was a bigger and better one. But they had a sale at the end of the year and I got it cheap, so I had money left over, and that allowed me to get a bigger chip for the Schmidt. While Tim was gone at school I converted this photographic telescope to a computer-controlled detector that had a very precise field.
When Tim graduated, he got offered a post-doc here. He started experimenting with being able to look for NEOs. We succeeded in that, but we didn’t have any money. We were actually building our own computers from scratch, because you couldn’t buy a computer with the capacity. It was a very shoestring effort.
Tim and Carl Hergenrother, who came from that time—those two, me and another student, we formed Catalina Sky Survey. I worked for a couple years building up software and going to find things, and we planned to do some upgrades, and I was able to get some money from NASA to upgrade just at the time that things were starting to fail: Computer was not working, network was crashing.
Tim always wanted to work at the Minor Planet Center, which is where we submit all of our observations. We had this meeting on NEOs in Torino, Italy, where this Torino Scale was being done, and the Director at the time, Brian Marsden, said, “I really want to have Tim. Would you mind if I hired him?” I said no. I knew Tim’s life goal was to work there.
He’s now the Director of the Minor Planet Center. I’ve had great relations with them since he’s been there. It’s been kind of rocky, because again, they had growing pains, as surveys got better and better. We send in ten thousand observations a night now. So they had to handle a lot of observational stuff.
But anyway, he had the opportunity to leave. Everything was crashing around us, so I decided to take the telescope down, and start the modifications and have some new optics made. Unfortunately we were out of commission for three years. But in that time we were completely rebuilding and refurbishing cutting-edge instrumentation, for the Schmidt, for the one-and-a-half meter on Mt. Lemmon, and for the Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring, Australia, which even today is the only place in the Southern hemisphere looking for NEOs.
Comet McNaught, the most spectacular comet in our lifetime, was discovered in our survey data. We turned out to be out of commission for a while, we did a lot of upgrades, and when we came back on in 2004, we quickly became a leader and we’ve been a leader ever since. Right now about two out of every three NEOs we discovered.
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