What had you achieved by the age of 12? Maybe you’d beaten your favourite video game, made a particularly good Lego tower, or mastered the art of falling off a skateboard.
As for Rafał Biros? Well, two weeks ago on Friday, November 13 he discovered a comet – making him probably the youngest discoverer of a comet in history.
“I’m still shocked this actually happened,” he tells me, via email. “It’s amazing to have achieved something like that.”
Rafał, from Świdnica in Poland, is one of many amateur astronomers that trawl through images from spacecraft or missions to help make scientific discoveries – known as citizen scientists.
In this instance he was part of a NASA-funded project called the Sungrazer Project that began in 2000, which uses images from NASA and the European Space Agency’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft to look for comets.
SOHO, which orbits between Earth and the Sun, was launched in 1995. By blocking out the light of the Sun with an onboard coronagraph (like holding your hand up to the Sun), it is able to study the Sun’s outer atmosphere, known as its corona.
However, this instrument also turned out to be very useful for finding comets. As these clumps of ice and rock from the distant Solar System approach the Sun they are heated, sometimes producing bright and visible tails as their ices melt.
Finding these comets, however, can be time-intensive. “We have two different cameras, and each takes about 100 to 120 images per day,” says Karl Battams from the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., the manager of the Sungrazer Comets project. “So we usually take an image roughly every six minutes in each camera.”
This equates to thousands of images per week that would need to be looked through in search of comets. So to do so, NASA enlists the help of volunteers like Rafał. “It’s effectively 100 percent citizen scientists,” says Battams.
Looking through images from the satellite in the morning, which anyone can do on SOHO’s website, Rafał spotted what appeared to be a moving blob in a sequence of images – thanks in part to home learning because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Due to online learning I get to spend more time at home engaging in the Sungrazer Project more actively,” he says.
Later in the day, he took another look. “After [school] lessons, I noticed that three more photos were added in which three positions of my comet were shown,” he says. And after submitting his images to be checked, just half an hour later he had official confirmation that what he’d seen was indeed a comet.
The comet was likely very small, notes Battams, maybe five to ten meters across. “It also no longer exists,” he notes. “It would have been vaporized by the Sun probably a few hours after he found it.”
But we can tell it probably came from a family of comets known as the Kreutz group. These comets are thought to have originated from the break-up of a larger comet more than 2,000 years ago, noted by the Greek historian Ephorus in 371 B.C.E.
Since then we’ve found more than 1,400 comets from this fragmentation event. “Essentially what we’re left with is this massive debris trail going through space,” says Battams. “Most of the comets we discover with SOHO are part of this debris trail.”
In fact, comet discoveries are not that rare. Every year 200 or so are found by SOHO, with around 4,100 comets found by the spacecraft in total, twice the total number of other comet discoveries in history.
But Rafał’s discovery is notable for him likely being the youngest person in history to find a comet. “I think he’s the youngest,” says Battams. “I do not know of anybody has used a telescope to discover a comet who is younger than 12.”
Several 13-year-olds have discovered comets, though. Astronomer Quanzhi Ye, an asteroid and comet expert from the University of Maryland, says one previous record holder was Hanjie Tan from China, in 2009. “He found [comet] C/2009 Y5 when he was 13,” he says.
Rafał’s comet has not been named yet, but it will be given a similar numerical denotation, likely something along the lines of C/2020 SOHO 4093 or 4094. And for Rafał, that’s still extremely exciting.
“I’ve been looking for comets for five months now,” he says, after being introduced to comet-hunting by his uncle. “At the beginning of my comet adventure it never crossed my mind I’d be the youngest discoverer.”
And while his comet is but one of many, it does have scientific value. “Every single one of them is like a tiny piece of the puzzle,” says Battams. “They all look a bit different and they all behave slightly different.”
Rafał is not planning to stop there, either. He is now hoping to find a comet from another group known as the Meyer group, while he also wants to “have ten discoveries” of comets to his name – and is even joining a separate hunt to look for asteroids.
More than anything, though, his story is proof that people of any age or discipline can get involved in astronomy. “I’m so thrilled that we can get kids as young as 12 years old that are making discoveries that have genuine scientific value,” says Battams. “That’s just fantastic.”
So if you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at making scientific discoveries – from looking for cosmic objects to even helping astronomers understand entire galaxies – there’s no time like the present.
“There’s a huge number of citizen science projects,” says Battams. “There’s a whole bunch of different stuff out there that I would strongly encourage people to take a look at.”