Like a fisherman trolling the waters in search of the “big one,” Don Machholz sweeps a telescope through the sea of stars over his home in Colfax, Calif. (pop. 1,496). While he may pause to enjoy the beauty of Saturn’s rings or watch a falling star, Machholz is pursuing even more elusive quarry—comets.
On Aug. 27, 2004, at 4:12 a.m., that’s precisely what he found when he noticed a small fuzzy light in the constellation Eridanus. Machholz quickly made a pencil sketch of the object’s position in relation to known stars and dashed into the house. He then checked his star charts and looked online for known comets in that area.
“I’ll admit I was sweating a bit, and it wasn’t just because of running between the telescope and the house,” recalls Machholz, 52, who works as a research and development technician for a laser and optics company in Auburn, Calif. “It was 10 years since I’d last found a comet; a long time with no fish in the sea.”
Six hours later, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., a clearinghouse for comet discoveries, confirmed the find, and Machholz celebrated the discovery of his 10th comet in 30 years. The find furthered his reputation as America’s top, living amateur discoverer of comets by visual means—using a telescope and the human eye.
Machholz began stargazing with his father’s binoculars when he was 8 years old. Five years later, he was using a telescope and spent countless nights searching the sky over his family’s Concord, Calif., home. His fascination with comets, however, didn’t begin until the mid-1970s. Comets—composed of frozen gases and dirt that can span miles in diameter and travel in elongated orbits around the Sun—aren’t easy to find. And that’s exactly what attracted Machholz.
“I chose comets because it took comet hunters 100 to 300 hours, on average, to find a comet, and that would keep me at my telescope,” he says.
Machholz, who earned degrees in general education (1975) and laser technology (1989), spent more than 300 hours looking for comets in 1975 without spotting one. His quest took on a new significance in 1976 when his younger brother, David, died unexpectedly. In the depths of despair, Machholz spent sleepless nights at astronomical viewing spots in California’s Loma Prieta Mountains.
That year alone he logged 553 hours looking skyward. He says the time brought him solace and a chance to sort out the important things in his life. In 1978, more than 1,700 hours into his hobby as an amateur comet chaser, he landed his first comet. “I came to realize that comet hunting is like a long distance marathon,” he says. “You want to finish, but along the way there’s plenty to see and do.”
Of course, enjoying the night sky isn’t just a solitary experience for Machholz. Along nearby mountain roads in the Sierra Nevada, he shares his hobby with others, setting up a dozen or more telescopes for free stargazing lessons, which he calls Star Parties. He’s also a favorite speaker at the Placer Nature Center in Auburn, Calif., which provides environmental-based education programs for all ages.
“Talking with Don about the night sky is like walking in the garden with your grandma,” says Leslie Warren, executive director of the Placer Nature Center. “Just like grandma knows the name of every plant growing out there, Don knows everything in the night sky. The kids just soak up what he says, and his Star Parties let hundreds of people look through telescopes, many for the first time. Don’s generosity of the heart is incredible.”
These days, Machholz has cut back on his comet chasing and logs about 100 hours of telescope viewing annually, allowing for more time with his wife, Laura, and their two sons, Matt, 18, and Mark, 13.
Yet even after searching the heavens for more than 7,000 hours during the last 30 years, Machholz still finds comfort among the stars.
“People should spend more time looking at the stars,” he says. “It lets them think about things.”
For more information on Machholz and his comet discoveries, log on to us.geocities.com/donmachholz/index.html.