WARRENSBURG — From childhood Fred Bruenjes has carried on a romance with the cosmos, and last week the sky rewarded his infatuation with the gift of something shiny:
A comet, one of those heavenly bodies with tails of ice and dust that race through the darkness of space at 22,000 kilometers per hour. The best known is Halley's Comet, but in the Kansas City area, Bruenjes' Comet will be famous, too.
"It is a very big deal. Like a proverbial needle in a haystack," said Carroll Iorg, president of the Astronomical League, an umbrella organization for more than 200 astronomy groups across the country. "I don't think this has happened in Kansas City ever. I've been around a long time."
Bruenjes, a 35-year-old electrical engineer/amateur astronomer, has four good-sized telescopes in domes at the ICStars Astronomy Ranch where he lives.
"Friday, February 10th 2012 just felt like the perfect night for a comet to be discovered by an amateur astronomer. I felt really compelled to observe, as the sky conditions were perfect, the cold weather probably scared off other amateurs, and most professional observatories had been shut down by the full moon for several days. That leaves the sky wide open for new discoveries."
The sophisticated equipment he uses is light-years more advanced than the 7x50 binoculars he borrowed from his dad when he was 10 years old to get his first grainy gawk at the return of Halley's Comet.
The underpowered gaze "was not impressive, but it was inspiring," Bruenjes said, enough to launch a lifelong hobby.
He wasn't using binoculars or even peeking through the eye piece of one of his telescopes, but was watching a computer screen when he spotted the fuzzy green dot. He marked its coordinates, then checked the next image. Movement.
He showed it to Jen Winter, his girlfriend, longtime astronomer and owner of the astronomy ranch near Warrensburg.
"I said right away, that is a comet," Winter said. The blue-green glow, created as the sun-orbiting comet's chemicals burned off, was unmistakable.
Bruenjes didn't report it right away, however.
He wrote on his webstie: "999 times out of 1000, someone else has already found it, so I plugged its coordinates into the Minor Planet Center's checker webpage form to see if it was anything currently known. The results came back blank, with nothing known at that location. Gulp."
Needing to be sure, he waited an anxious day for the thing to disappear in case it had been a reflection from Jupiter, space junk or the venting of a satellite nearby.
But Saturday night he found it again, where he predicted its course would take it, he wrote:
"Wow! This thing is for real! It's at about this time that it began to sink in that a lifelong quest had just been fulfilled."
Soon, other professionals and amateurs were tilting telescopes to check it out. The International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Massachusetts put C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes) at the top of the year's list of finds.
Iorg, of Kansas City, said the spotting reflected well on the area's enthusiasts, and "lets the rest of us know that discoveries like this can be made by amateur astronomers."
Of the half dozen or so unknown comets discovered along their vast orbits every year, most are spotted by professional astronomers working at big government-funded observatories.
"I'm just a guy in my backyard," Bruenjes said.
Well, not quite. Bruenjes lives on the 35-acre astronomy ranch, having given up the corporate life half a decade ago. He converted his hobby into a business and founded Moonglow Technologies through which he builds telescopes and computer systems for professional and amateur star gazers.
Friday night, Bruenjes had a fairly narrow window before the moonlight spoiled his view. He was using a 14-inch-diameter Schmidt Cassegrain lens, one of his smaller telescopes, set up with a camera system inside a covered dome.
"A camera can stay open to the light a lot longer than the naked eye," Bruenjes said. On this night, however, his digital Canon camera locked up for a while, nearly causing him to miss the big one that night. From his website:
"I was frustrated because the perfect conditions had been squandered away. At this point I really wanted to give up and shut down the observatory as the moon was about to rise. However, I reminded myself that you can't find if you don't look and so I restarted the system. I let it run for two hours, when it was clear that the Moon was severely impacting sensitivity and it was time to give up."
Then he began using a pinpointing program that automatically detects movement on his computer screen, but Bruenjes likes to make a cursory visual search just in case the equipment missed something weird or faint.
"Something immediately caught my attention in a set that was taken as the moon was rising," he wrote. "There was a faint fuzzy object in two of the frames, and possibly in the third frame. It was moving in a straight line and clearly wasn't an asteroid."
Bruenjes has traveled to 40 countries to photograph the heavens, some of his shots landing in National Geographic magazine. On his website, he notes some of these important moments:
October 29, 2005: Added movie of Mars, the best photos I have ever gotten of the red planet.
August 23, 2007: Added images of 2007 Perseid Meteor shower with 253 Perseids.
July 23, 2008: Start reporting on Mongolian Total Solar Eclipse.
July 10, 2008: Added images from 2008 Southern Skies Star Party.
March 4, 2009: Added info about the Leonid Meteor Shower expedition.
Jul 8, 2010: Start reporting our trip to Tahiti for the total solar eclipse.
Feb 12, 2012: I discovered a comet!
As Bruenjes put it:
"I just crossed another thing off my bucket list."