Apr 19

Skyward By David H Levy May, 2021

David H Levy

May, 2021

A long time ago, while I was writing my biography of Clyde W Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, I learned from him that he had discovered other objects during his long search at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He found many asteroids during his time at Lowell Observatory, at least one comet, and, surprisingly enough, one nova. In February 1986, I visited Flagstaff in an effort to locate the nova that he found. It was a painstaking, tedious task but I loved it anyway. Because Clyde had been so careful recording his observations from each photographic plate onto the envelopes surrounding that plate, I had only to read through all the notes from each envelope.

On one of the envelopes covering the year 1931, I saw the nova on a plate dated March 23 of that year. He remarked that must be “quite an interesting star to brighten from fainter than fifteenth magnitude in less than a day.”

I later found nine other observations of this star while going through old plates at the Harvard College Observatory, and then I reported them all to Brian Marsden, then director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. He said, “I will announce it, but not yet.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because you are an amateur astronomer.”

Them’s fighting words. But before I had a chance to use them, he said, “If you were a professional astronomer, you would never look at the field again, and that would be the end of it. But as an amateur astronomer, you have a lovely 40 centimeter (16-inch) telescope with which you can observe the field every night. When the star erupts again, you will catch it, and then I will announce it as a current item!”

Six months later, on March 23, 1990, I saw the star in outburst with that telescope. It was 59 years to the day after Clyde’s discovery, and I was thrilled to let the discoverer know of it. The observation and history were announced in a subsequent announcement card. Since the I have seen the star in outburst over and over again, and one of those sightings was on another March 23, which by this time had assumed more than one new significance: it is also the discovery date of our most famous comet, Shoemaker-Levy 9. It is also our wedding anniversary.

TV Corvi is now my favourite variable star. On each clear night I check the field. One time I caught the star so early in its brightening that I was able to create a movie of the event. When there is an always welcome outburst, it is fun to say hello to my old friend, and I really have a feeling that the star answers me, from the depths of space, with a cosmic “hi there!” right back.

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