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He's out of this world

What do you do when you see a shooting star in the sky? Probably squeeze your eyes shut and make a wish. Sixteen year-old Prafull Sharma, however, prefers to trace its origin. On July 14 this year, Sharma discovered the SOHO 2333, a fragment of comet Machholz.  “Happy Independence Day, Ma’am,” are Sharma’s pleasantries, before letting loose a volley of information on his recent discovery. 

“The comet is a planetary body which comes out of the Oort’s Cloud, where all comets are born,” Sharma begins, in a crisp, explanatory tone, adding that there are two types of comets — periodic and non-periodic. The Class 12 student of Ahlcon Public School in Mayur Vihar, New Delhi, discovered the comet by analysing the data of NASA and European Space Agency’s Solar and Heliosperic Observatory (SOHO).


New Delhi-based teenager, Prafull Sharma says he has often missed out on comet discoveries by a few minutes due to a slow Internet connection

The only things Sharma needs for his discovery are a computer to log on to SOHO’s website and download images from the coronograph, and the device to view the corona or the surrounding layer of the sun. “The coronograph has two plates that click a photograph every 12 and 20 minutes respectively. I download the images in JPEG form, view all the images one after the other with an interval of 0.2 seconds between each of them to form a video.

The comet can be seen from the periphery of the disc as it moves towards the sun. Once you spot a comet, you have to locate its X and Y coordinates and submit the report to the SOHO moderator,” explains Sharma.  Here, Sharma slows down, though we understand, there is much to tell. “The comet on the image is only 1 or 2 pixels in size, which is very, very tiny,” says Sharma, who joined the programme this January.


SOHO 2333, his recent discovery. Pic courtesyY/Prafull Shama

This is the first time Sharma has discovered a comet, but the teenager already has a few asteroids, 85 supernovas and 55 variable stars in his discovery kitty. In 2007, SPACE (Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators) started a club in Sharma’s school, and he signed up for four modules spread across two years. 

“In the first year, they brushed up our basics in astronomy and we observed open skies in Jewar in UP, and Nuh in Haryana. There, I learnt the concept of constellations, stars and comets,” raves Sharma, who went to Patna in 2009 to see the total solar eclipse and Kerala in 2010 to follow the annual solar eclipse, along with All India Asteroid Search Camp, a collaboration between International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC) and SPACE.

“Renowned comet hunter, Terry Lovejoy introduced me to this project after we interacted online. Initially, I was frustrated because there were 100 people working on discovering comets. Twenty nine comets have been discovered by the Chinese so far,” says Sharma, who switches on his computer at 7.10 am every day, and logs on to the SOHO system to downloads images and reads them for comet presence.

At 7.30 am, he leaves for school and returns at 2.30 pm. “After that, I leave for my IIT JEE coaching classes and return at 8 pm to revise lessons, and then, it is time to go supernova hunting,” says Sharma, who has tried to get his friends on board too. “They do it for a day or two, and then, lose patience. Also, the Internet connection in India is really slow. I often lose out on a discovery by a few seconds. Other comet hunters are really fast,” says Sharma, in a serious tone.

One night, Sharma downloaded some images and glanced at them without much attention. The next morning when he studied them, two pixel-size points attracted his eye. “Both were comets, but one was discovered 14 minutes before my submission, by a Chinese comet hunter, Liang Liu,” says Sharma, who wants to take up aerospace engineering, and specialise in jet propulsion when he grows up.

After this discovery, Sharma ranks 83rd out of 85 comet hunters on SOHO. “Other students unwind by watching television. I turn to astronomy,” Sharma, who is the third Indian to discover a SOHO comet.  

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