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Aboriginal astronomer credited with comet find

Author: 
Cheryl Petten, Windspeaker Writer, Calgary
Volume: 
26
Issue: 
8
Year: 
2008

As an astronomer, Rob Cardinal has spent an inordinate amount of time gazing up into the night sky. But now, following a discovery he made in early October, one of the celestial objects he will be viewing during his surveys of the sky will be a comet that bears his name.
Cardinal, the astronomer, first spotted Cardina,l the comet-also known as C/2008 T2-on Oct. 1 while he was performing an asteroid survey using the Baker-Nunn telescope at the University of Calgary's Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. However, before Cardinal could report his findings and receive credit for his discovery, he needed to be able to report its position on a subsequent night, something he was not able to do until Oct. 6.
"It was a really cloudy, crummy night, but I managed to see it through holes in the clouds. And then once you have it on two nights, then you can really claim its discovery," Cardinal said.
Those days in between the first and second sighting were pretty stressful, Cardinal admitted.
"Oh, that was really nail-biting," he said. "I've never been so tense in my life because I thought somebody else was going to find it and report it."
At the time he reported his discovery to the Minor Planet Centre, Cardinal still wasn't sure exactly what it was he had found. Was it a comet, or an asteroid?
Asteroids and comets are both small planetary objects that orbit the sun, but while asteroids are made up of rock and metal, comets are frozen balls of matter-gases, ice and rocky particles. As the comet approaches the sun, it begins to melt, surrounding the comet nucleus, or coma, with a cloud of gas, and trailing off behind to form the comet's tail.
"I was still hoping it was an asteroid at that point, because if it were an asteroid, its brightness meant that it was huge. And its motion was slow across the sky, which meant that it was either coming towards us or moving away from us. So, being an asteroid hunter, that would have been extremely exciting," he said. "But I'm good with a comet."
A lot of questions still remain about the newly-discovered comet, and Cardinal is working to help find the answers.
In addition to gathering data from its own viewing of the comet, the observatory is getting data in from a number of other observers, and all that information is being incorporated into the orbital calculations for the comet, Cardinal explained. The comet should continue to be visible from Earth for the next year-and-a-half to two years, during which time data on the comet's position can continue to be gathered.
"So, the name of the game is follow-up," Cardinal said. "And it's going to be approaching its perihelion, which is its closest point to the sun, in mid-June. So that's when it will be brightest. People will be able to see it with binoculars and small backyard telescopes."
While Cardinal is obviously enjoying success in his chosen career, he took a rather circuitous route on his journey to becoming an astronomer. Cardinal was born a member of the Siksika Nation, but he was adopted at birth and never lived in the community, growing up instead in Rocky Mountain House and Edmonton. When he was in Grade 11, health problems forced him to leave school, and he never went back. Then, in the early 1990s, Cardinal's life changed. He met his wife, and they had their first son, and he realized he would need to get an education in order to support his new family. He went to Siksika, where he asked for-and received-funding to complete the University and College Entrance Program offered by Concordia University in Edmonton.
"It was a wonderful program and I really enjoyed it. And as a surprise, even to me, my best courses were the math and the physics. I mean, I always did pretty good at math, and I always thought physics was pretty interesting. I liked to read about black holes and quantum mechanics and all kinds of stuff. So I was interested in science, but I never considered being a scientist," Cardinal said. "I guess I didn't really have any aspirations, so when my physics teacher at Concordia College said, 'Well, this is your best mark.

Why don't you go into physics?' that was literally the first time I ever thought about it," Cardinal said.
He looked into the physics programs offered by various Canadian universities, and settled on the program at the University of Victoria. Again, Siksika provided Cardinals' funding, and he was off to British Columbia to study physics.
"It was tough. I mean, it was much, much harder than high school. It was daunting. As a matter of fact, my worst marks were probably in math. But it was interesting. It was very interesting. So that was what kept me going on," he said.
Then, during his first year of university, Cardinal took a course that provided an overview of astronomy.
"It was eye opening to know what we know about the universe and how we know it. And then (the instructor) would point out what we don't know, and how we could go and find out. And so that really got me thrilled, and that's really the first time that I started to consider astronomy."
While some astronomers focus their efforts on examining the farthest reaches of the universe, Cardinal's interests lie closer to home, with near-earth astronomy.
"All the other astronomy is galactic stuff, where you're looking at black holes and stars and you're looking at other galaxies. Where you're looking so far away that it's never going to matter to anybody, whatever you find out," Cardinal said.
He'd rather spend his time looking for asteroids and other objects closer to the earth.
"They could hit us, or they could come close to us, more likely, and we can go to them and study them. So this is like astronomy that actually matters," he said.
While his efforts to try to find out more about Comet Cardinal will be keeping him busy, Cardinal also plans to make time to find a way to give back to the Siksika Nation. One way he'd like to do that is by making arrangements for students from the community to come out to the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory's visitor centre.
"I'm really, really excited to take this forward and maybe, hopefully be able to inspire some of the kids to stay in school a bit longer. They don't have to do science. I just want them to reach a little bit further and to see that they can do anything. Even if they don't know what they want to do. I didn't know I wanted to be an astronomer until I went to university. I had no idea. And I didn't even know I was good at science until I went back to school. And so even if they do drop out of school, or have been out of school, they can always go back. And so I want them to know that. Basically there's no circumstance beyond which they can't go back and get something more. So I think it's important."
Cardinal is also interested in working with Siksika to set up a telescope in the community.
"The actual kind of astronomy that I do, searching for asteroids, anybody can do, you just need a telescope. So, I really want to take that to the band there, and I want to see if they'll actually fund a telescope there. Because I would be overjoyed to go out there and set it up for them and show them how to operate it and just have kids or anybody from the band run it," he said.
"The next comet discovery could be from there, and I'm really excited about that. I just want to give something back."

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