Two high school students have a cosmic story to share about their summer internship at JPL.
Dillon Elsbury: We were working with the WISE team. WISE is the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, which, like, surveys the sky in four infrared bands.
Tommy Gautier: It's looking for everything. It's looking for ultra-luminous galaxies, comets, asteroids, brown dwarfs, close stars, dim stars. I was doing regular routine quality assurance with these 800 to 2000 objects we go through every day. We look at the images and we look at the data on them. We kind of just look at them, get a feel for it and then decide whether it's real or something that's not actually there that WISE is observing.
Well, so then we saw this one, and when I saw it, it looked almost like anything else except I just kinda got this weird vibe from it that it had something on it. So I went to check to see if it was previously known in this thing called the Minor Planet Checker, and it didn't come up with anything, which is kind of exciting because it means that we've discovered something new. And then I went back and to me, it looked like a comet but I couldn't really tell, I mean I was kind of the new guy. So I sent an email out to everyone.
Elsbury: We're both in different corners of the room and I remember Tommy said, he was, "Dillon, Dillon, check your email." I'm like, why are you making me check my email, just tell me what's up. And I checked my email and it said "new comet" like with 50 exclamation points. So I looked at it, I saw a tail on that object. I was like, little grin happened. I looked at Tommy, he had a bigger grin.
Gautier: And then we got an email back saying this is a new comet. It's previously unknown so find all the data you can on it. We spent the next 20 minutes looking for more images of this comet and then when we got through sending maybe 20 of them in, we had the entire observed data set for this comet.
Elsbury: From this internship I've learned tons about comets. I've had like a rough idea of comets. I thought, you know, fuzzy ball in the sky, has a tail. But I never really knew a lot about them. Like, okay, let's say their orbits. Their orbits, they're tremendously different. They vary a lot. Comets come from the Oort cloud. The Oort cloud is a spherical shape around our solar system.
Gautier: And I think it's been really awesome to be able to be hands-on with astronomy and be out there working on a flight project mission.
Elsbury: Oh, my friends, they were like... I was actually surprised that they thought it was pretty cool. Like, I was, like, wow. They're just gonna tease me. I'm doing astronomy. But they actually thought it was pretty cool to find a comet.
Title - NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology