| Christiane Glaeser |
Maidbronn, Germany (dpa) – The night was crystal clear over Bavaria on September 28, 2009 when Bernhard Haeusler made his remarkable astronomical discovery, spotting an asteroid that now bears his hometown’s name.
Using a telescope he bought 20 years previously and set up on his terrace, the amateur astronomer distinguished an object with a diameter of around 1.7 kilometres that is orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter.
This year it was officially named after Maidbronn, a community of 1,000 people where he lives.
An avid star-gazer since the age of four, Haeusler, now 57, has been hunting asteroids for the past 20 years and “410928 Maidbronn” is his first big success.
When conditions are right, he scans a tiny part of the night sky with his telescope and a special video camera for around two and a half hours.
“The region I observe is the size of a third of the moon’s surface,” the IT professional explains. He manages up to three scans on clear night.
The next evening he reviews his videos at high speed in a procedure known as “blinking”.
The moving images coming from the computer look something like the snow that television sets show when they cannot pick up any broadcast, but experts like Haeusler train themselves to make out any movements among the steady stars, large and small.
A bar just a couple of millimetres long briefly appears in the video: That is the blink.
“That was my first recording of asteroid 410928 Maidbronn,” he says with evident pride.
Haeusler had to wait more than four years for his discovery to be recognised officially. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has strict rules, including at least two clear sightings of the object.
Two observations allow its orbit to be calculated. “An orbit is an asteroid’s fingerprint, so to speak,” he says. A database program must be used to check whether this particular object has been sighted and reported before.
The choice of name for “his” asteroid was a no-brainer, he reckons.
“This town gave me the opportunity to discover this asteroid,” he says.
Discoverers are not allowed to choose their own names – that is only allowed in the case of comets.
The local mayor, Burkard Losert, is happy with the choice.
“It’s a great honour to have the asteroid named for this area,” he says, expressing admiration for the patience displayed by Haeusler. Among more than 4,000 amateur astronomers in Germany there are perhaps only a dozen as dedicated and professional as Haeusler.
According to the IAU, the Solar System is populated by more than 670,000 known asteroids and 3,830 comets, most of them found by professional observatories which used advanced software instead of the old-fashioned blink comparator used by amateurs.
Asteroid expert Ekkehard Kuehrt of the Institute for Planetary Research in Berlin says the large observatories with their automated image differencing algorithms make almost all the new finds – some 5,000 new objects are found each month in the night skies.
“For amateurs a discovery like this is a stroke of luck and quite the exception,” he says.
Haeusler is undeterred. “Hunting instinct, skill, luck, persistence and diligence – then you can be the first to find something, even with the amateur’s limited resources,” he says.