It is 3am and reluctantly I sit up on the side of the bed and look out the window. The sky is fairly blazing with stars. Above the Eucalyptus trees to the east, Canopus takes the high ground while below are are the stars of Vela, awash in the mists of the Milky Way. More southerly are the Great and Lesser Magellanic clouds, looking quite, well, quite cloudy.
Afer a few minutes I am in my observatory firing up the C11 telescope. This Celestron telescope is modified with the famed "Hyperstar" lens giving a whopping 2.5 degrees field of view to my camera, A Nikon D7000 SLR. As I click away across the south eastern sky, looking for comets that are as yet undiscovered, I realise that my hobby is about to take a downward turn.
For many years that legend of comet discovery, Rob McNaught, was the only professional to patrol the southern skies for comets and Near Earth Objects. From his observatory high atop the mountains of Siding Spring, Coonabarabran, McNaught tracked down dozens and dozens of comets, and while this was a challenge for amateurs who were also looking for comets, there was still room for the likes of Terry Lovejoy to find comets from his backyard.
There was certainly no room for the likes of Australian comet hunter, Bill Bradfield, whose stunning 18 comet haul was made with rudimentary telescopes and by the keen power of his eyesight at the telescope. Bradfield's comets are all named "Bradfield" as he was the only discoverer. And while visual discovery at the eyepiece was the modus operandi for amateur hunters for two centuries, amateurs, myself included, now have access to highly sensitive imaging and tracking equipment that out - perform visual searching by many magnitudes.
Currently there are no major patrols of the southern sky because the Catalina survey of which McNaught was a part, ceased funding his position two years ago. So we amateurs are busy searching for our namesakes while the southern skies are relatively quiet and free from big search programs.
But this amateurs' haven is soon to be a thing of the past. In a few years the might of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will reduce amateurs' chances of discovering comets or minor planets to almost zero. From its perch high on a mountain top in Chile, the LSST with its 8.4 M mirror and its 3.2 Gigapixel camera will rove the sky relentlessly, producing 15 terabytes of information every night, covering the whole of its visible sky every few days and detecting comets of such faint luminance that amateurs will be beaten to them years before they will be visible in small telescopes. More and more comets bear the names of robotic surveys rather than lone amateurs; PANNSTARRS, Lemmon, Catalina, LINEAR, LONEOS are names that are familiar to comet hunters and represent the robotic surveys that are now dominating the sky.
This is the progress of science, I suppose. And while this development is inevitable, I am sad that I will perhaps never have the thrill of discovering "my" comet. Perhaps I was born 50 years too late. Perhaps I should have looked more closely through my binoculars, when I was a lad of 17 hoping to bag a comet. Perhaps.