Press Release

IAU Names Asteroids for Prominent AAVSO Observers

By SpaceRef Editor
February 10, 2014
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The Minor Planet Center, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently honored AAVSO observers, Edward A. Halbach and William B. Albrecht, by naming two minor planets in their honor in January’s Minor Planet Circular

Both men were distinguished members of the AAVSO, and key members of the Milwaukee Astronomical Society (MAS). Ed was one of the MAS founding members in 1932. In 1933, Ed met a high school student named Bill Albrecht. The two men remained friends for more than 75 years.

The story of their friendship, interesting lives, contributions to astronomy and the discovery and subsequent naming of the asteroids in their honor spans over eight decades and has a strong AAVSO thread running throughout.

Born in 1909, Ed Halbach lived to be 101 years old. When he passed away in March of 2011 he had become one of the most important amateur astronomers of the twentieth century. He played a key role in the construction of the MAS observatory in 1936 and became observatory director in 1942, a job he held for 35 years. In 1947 Ed helped to form the Astronomical League and served as its first President.

In the 1940’s Ed studied the effects of solar events on the Earth’s magnetic field. In the 1960’s he became involved in Project Moonwatch and also began timing grazing occultations, using a two-mile cable and chart recorder system he designed. In 1981 he received the Astronomical League’s Leslie C. Peltier Award for his work in variable stars, lunar occultations and artificial satellite programs. In 1997 he was awarded the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Amateur Achievement Award.

Ed was a prolific variable star observer, well into his 90’s, contributing over 100,000 variable star observations to the AAVSO in his lifetime. He also helped to develop, check, and revise many AAVSO finder charts for variable star observing. Ed was awarded the AAVSO Merit Award in 1998 for his long-term commitment to the AAVSO and its principles. And in 2003, he was awarded the AAVSO’s William Tyler Olcott Distinguished Service Award for “his observing, mentoring, dedication, and devotion to astronomy.”

Born in 1917, Bill Albrecht became friends with Ed Halbach as a high school student interested in astronomy. Bill was involved in construction projects at the MAS Observatory for many years. Two of the domes, the 10” “portascopes” used for occultation timings, and the design of the mount for the big “Z Scope”, were only some of the projects Bill was involved with.

In the late 70’s Bill and his wife moved to Pahala, HI, where he made over 80,000 observations of variable stars with an eleven-inch Celestron in his backyard observatory. Bill did engineering work for the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory and was granted personal use of a 24” telescope on Mauna Kea several nights per month.

Bill contributed over 115,000 variable star observations to the AAVSO in his life and in 1999 was awarded the Astronomical League’s Leslie C. Peltier Award for his work in variable stars.

In 2001 the MAS ‘Albrecht Observatory’ was dedicated in honor of Bill and his wife, Anne, for their service to the society. In 2002 Bill was awarded the AAVSO Director’s Award.

The idea to name asteroids in their honor first came up when several long time and former MAS members got together at a local pub to celebrate Ed’s life. A few months later, Gerry Samolyk, MAS Observatory Director and AAVSO member/observer, approached AAVSO Director Arne Henden with the idea after the 2011 AAVSO Centennial banquet in Woburn, MA.

“I first met Ed and Bill when I was in high school,” explained Gerry. “Ed was responsible for my introduction to variable star observing. I worked with Ed and Bill on many construction and maintenance projects at the MAS observatory.”

Gerry recalls that Bill used to joke, “sometimes, astronomy is something that you do with a wheelbarrow and a shovel.”

Arne Henden remembers the original conversation with Samolyk. “Gerry and I were talking about how there were asteroids named after Janet Mattei, myself, and several other AAVSO members. He said it would be nice if we could get minor planets named for Ed and Bill, and wondered if I knew anyone who had unnamed asteroid discoveries who might be able to help.”

It just so happened that Arne knew of a pair of AAVSO members, Walt Cooney and John Gross, who had unnamed asteroid discoveries made at the Sonoita Research Observatory (SRO) in Arizona. After a few subtle reminders from Samolyk, Arne finally contacted Cooney and Gross, who agreed to submit names for the first asteroids discovered at SRO.

The first asteroid discovered at SRO was 2004 RA339, which was eventually numbered 357546, and is now named Edwardhalbach. It was first imaged on the night of Sept 14, 2004. Walt Cooney tells the story of its serendipitous discovery.

“We had been doing a time series on the asteroid (2808) Belgrano in order to generate a light curve and determine its rotation period.  This faint asteroid (2004 RA339) was also seen moving along in the same field.  A check of the MPC asteroid ephemeris website did not show an asteroid there so there was a good chance it would be a new discovery.”

Cooney used the positions of the new asteroid from the first night to predict its position on the next night.  “We imaged it again on the 15th. Normally two night’s astrometry would have been enough to be able to send the report to the Minor Planet Center, but we had not yet completed the process to get an MPC code for our observatory so we had to complete that process before we could submit the astrometry for the potential discovery.”

SRO was eventually given the moniker G93 by the MPC.  “By this time we had a third consecutive night’s images of the potential discover, so we submitted astrometry for those three nights to the MPC and they confirmed it was a new discovery with the designation 2004 RA339.”

The second asteroid discovered at SRO was 2004 TK9, which was eventually numbered 268115 and is now named Williamalbrecht. Walt Cooney provided the details.

“This one was spotted first on Oct 6, 2004 while doing a photometry series of (4264) Karljosephine.  This discovery was relatively bright at magnitude 17.5.”

After several emails between Arne, Gerry, Walt and John Gross, the citations were written and submitted to the IAU in November 2013. Both minor planets received their official names from the IAU and were included in the Minor Planet Center Circular, published January 16, 2014. The Citations read:

(357546) Edwardhalbach = 2004 RA339

Discovered 2004 Sept. 15 by W. R. Cooney Jr. and J. Gross at Sonoita.
Edward A. Halbach (1909–2011) was a prominent amateur astronomer who made contributions to the study of variable stars, lunar occultations, solar astronomy and aurorae. He mentored and encouraged generations of astronomers, both amateur and professional.

(268115) Williamalbrecht = 2004 TK9

Discovered 2004 Oct. 7 by W. R. Cooney Jr. and J. Gross at Sonoita. 
William B. Albrecht (1917–2009) was an active amateur astronomer who made contributions to the study of variable stars, lunar occultations, solar astronomy and aurorae. Bill designed and fabricated instrumentation for amateur and professional observatories.

 Congratulations to Walt Cooney and John Gross for their discoveries and our sincere thanks to Gerry Samolyk and members of the MAS for prompting this fitting honor to two of the AAVSO’s finest members.

SpaceRef staff editor.