Asteroid hunter from Piszkéstető
After sunset he aims his telescope towards stars, during daytime he supports
other enthusiasts with same passion as his own. His original profession is
geography teacher, but since his graduation he works only as an astronomer.
He belongs to those few fortunate people who are able to earn their living
with their hobby. It is said that jazz musicians and burglars operate best
at night. This is partly true about astronomers too. But not generally, some
of them are best at night, some during day. When we speak about
Krisztián Sárneczky, it is true for both: night and day.
When bright bolid exploded over Central Europe on February 28, 2010 nobody
assumed, that remnants of this sky wanderer could be found. But it indeed
was! This was a result of succesful cooperation of amateurs and professional
astronomers from three countries - Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic.
Everyone who followed the story of meteorite Košice, could have noticed also your involvement. You "played" your part in the beginning of this story. How did this exactly happen?
I had only a marginal role. I forwarded the video with captured bolide from TV news, contacted its owner and forwarded this information to other astronomers. That was all. Further communication with the owner and processing of video file (this was done by colleagues from Czech Republic), supply of the instruments for measurements, necessary in-place analysis, almost everything was carried out by Antal Igaz. We helped him of course, but he was the main player. He sent the data needed for computations of object trajectory in space derived from the video to other professionals.
You also commented on this event in the Hungarian TV news. Did you think that it will end with such a success?
No, I thought that this meteoroid was completely burned in the atmosphere. But luckily it did not happen that way. After computations of the impact location, we visited that place, but did not find anything.
You are geography teacher by profession, but you work as astronomer since you got your diploma. How did you discover astronomy?
It was straight forward. I was interested in natural sciences since my childhood. I read all available books on this subject and I enjoy watching programs on TV. If I weren´t working as an astronomer, I would have been as a volcanologist or meteorologist. I remember that I received my first astronomy book at age of 12 as a Christmas present. My parents noticed that two pages in the atlas of the world, about Moon and the planets, were worn off completely from browsing over and over, so they bought me a complete book.
I cannot recall a specific event, which led me to astronomy. It just happened. But it must have been a helpful accident that my childhood friend Ákos Kereszturi lived next door and we started to attend astronomy club together. Later he became an excellent planetary scientist and specialist for Mars. I remember how we decided to watch Austin comet back in 1990 (to find a dark spot for observation in Budapest was almost impossible). We climbed the Rózsadomb hill and near the hotel SZOT we found a dark place, but the watch-man came to us and wanted to know what we were doing there. We told him about chasing a comet. He left us alone, but who knows whether he believed us ...
You hunt for exoplanets, supernovas, but your favourite astronomical targets are asteroids. How did you "discover" minor planets?
As I said I was interested in comets first, but if someone takes interest in this fuzzy objects, sooner or later ends up with asteroids. At least this happened to me. After my first observation of a comet, I wanted to observe asteroids too. And I was also captivated by possibilities of discovery. I think that almost every amateur astronomer dreams about discovering comets. And when we talk about discoveries, there is also chance to discover asteroids, novas or supernovas. Nowadays, all of these objects can be discovered by amateur astronomers. When I carried out my first astrometric measurement of an asteroid on October 19, 1996 in Szeged, I already had in my repertoire more than 100 comets observed visually and the same number of asteroids.
Do you remember how you discovered your first minor planet?
Of course, I do very well. I started my hunt for asteroids with my friend László Kiss in Szeged. He was at that time postgraduate at University of Szeged. When we visited Konkoly Observatory at Piszkéstető during astronomical summer camp next summer, it occurred to him, that in the fall we should come back to do some observations! As the observatory was open to cooperative work, we got observation time for their Schmidt telescope, the one I use for asteroid hunt ever since. I discovered most of my minor planets with it.
Our first working week was in November 1997. We waited 6 days and 7 nights in a
thick fog which did not allowed us to observe a single minute. Next January it
was little bit better, we had one clear night. On acquired images I found a lot
of new objects! At that time I realised how powerful instrument this telescope
was. In February we returned to Piszkéstető with a clear goal to observe the
selected part of sky in two consecutive nights.
You need observations from two nights in order for the Minor Planet Centre (MPC) to assign your discovery a provisional designation. The weather was helpful this time, so we accomplished our aim. But it was not possible to process and measure images right after observations. I did it when I returned home to Szeged. I sent all positions to MPC and hoped that there would be some objects caught by us on both nights. Soon afterwards I received designation 1998 DA33 for my first asteroid. You can find it now as (91024) Széchenyi. In those days there were just a few asteroid hunters. Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) was running as the only big survey. Other survey program, LINEAR just started, so posting your observations few days or even a whole week after the discovery, did not threaten losing the right as a discoverer. My thrill from being a discoverer was repeated again in April 1998 when I found another 2 asteroids. So my counting has started.
You have more than 500 discovery credits, which one is your favourite one?
I think that (84 921) Morkoláb is my favourite. I caught this minor planet during the total lunar eclipse on November 9, 2003. I prepared my observing schedule well in advance and I knew that I could turn those 90 minutes of totality to my advantage and observe several earlier discovered objects and perhaps even discover new ones. Although there are more than four hundred thousand asteroids, I did not hear about any discovered during lunar eclipse.
What is the driving force behind continuing your quest?
When I found my first asteroid, it crossed my mind that how long I would be able to enjoy my new discoveries for? And I cannot answer this question to this day. When I am waiting for the designation mail from MPC, I am excited just like in 1998. My joy from a new discovery after 13 years is the same, it makes me still fascinated. Of course, you need some kind of goal all the time. It is the total number of discoveries for me, at the beginning it was 10, then 100, 500 and presently it is 1000 asteroids. Last year I had a slow down because to reach 1000 discoveries seemed too far away. But Konkoly Observatory lately purchased a powerful CCD camera thanks to the government funding program "Expansion", which increased the number of new discoveries 10 times. This new setup (the 0.60 m Schmidt telescope and the new CCD camera) enables to make discoveries of not only 2-3, but even 20-30 unknown objects...
Besides your own images you also regularly scan archived CCD images taken by NEAT/
Palomar. Where did you learn about this SkyMorph data archive?
I came across SkyMorph by browsing on internet, but at first I did not think of it as something useful and I did not use it. Then Brigita Sipőcz, one of my students took part in summer astronomy camp in Visnjan, Croatia, where she worked in minor planet group and learned how to use SkyMorph together with Astrometrica software. Since then we measured many thousands of positions from this archive for several hundreds of asteroids and also found about 60 new objects.
You started to search this archive in time, before MPC changed the credit rule for NEAT discoveries. The big "SkyMorph hunters" of those times gave up their hunt for unknown objects right after its modification. Did this change affect your next searches?
I was interested in precovery positions of my discoveries from Piszkéstető from start, in hope that they would receive permanent number as soon as possible. I have never been interested in search for unknown objects, but when I came across such an unidentified asteroid, I measured its position too. I just could not left it there unnoticed. All objects were worthy of another search. So when I found more positions for it, I sent it to MPC. The total number of minor planets was increased by another new object, although I was not credited with its discovery. It was satisfying enough for me, that I was able to help.
Your "home" observatory was already mentioned, Konkoly observatory in Matra hills, on Piszkéstető. There, far from city lights, you have been observing with a 0.60m Schmidt and a 1m Ritchey-Chrétien-Coudé. During your career you worked also from several other locations, both in Hungary and abroad. You were a visiting astronomer at Siding Springs in Australia. How did you get there and what was your research program?
I won the internship from Eötvös grant supported by Hungarian government and University of Szeged. I was guest at my friend László Kiss' place, who we mentioned earlier. I stayed on this wonderful continent for 3.5 months. My object of study was comet Elst-Pizarro, which was approaching its perihelion. We observed it for 3 nights, unfortunately its activity was so weak, that even the 2.3m telescope was not able to show its dust cloud. But I successfully observed several main belt comets and my biggest "catch" was observation of Hale-Bopp comet at an amazing distance of 25.8 AU, 10 years after its perihelion passage.
Siding Springs Observatory is renown for its comet discoveries. Did you meet there any famous comet hunter?
Yes, I did. I met five discoverers. One of them was the well known Rob McNaught, and I interviewed him for our Hungarian Meteor magazine. Next were Gordon Garradd, Malcom Hartley, Steven Lee and Quentin Parker. McNaught has 57 comet discoveries and comet Hartley nowadays attracts attention of many astronomers worldwide. Last two astronomers are credited each with 1 comet discovery.
What is your greatest experience from your stay Down Under?
I was most impressed by the fact, that people can live in such a different way as us here in Central Europe. Adherence of rules is what makes our life easier, moreover people in Australia are relaxed and friendly, which makes life happier. At least in area of Sydney it does.
Every month you spend a week on Piszkéstető and for other 3 weeks you work in the office in Budapest as an executive secretary of Hungarian Astronomical Association (HAA). What is your main duty in this position?
It is not one duty, but many smaller ones. We prepare publications in printed and electronic versions for our monthly magazine Meteor and also for our web site. We organize observational meetings, lectures, summer camps. I am also leader of astronomical club, I often answer questions about telescopes and about astronomy in general. I maintain accurate data of HAA members, post our publications and I even do cleaning of our offices.
HAA was founded in 1989 in order to popularize astronomy to general public. Its activities are very important. How do you evaluate amateur astronomy in Hungary?
I think it is a worldwide rarity, that one organization, which associates amateur astronomers from the whole country (more than 1600 members renew their memberships every year) can do so much work on popularizing astronomy. So I take it for good, especially when we take in account that it is all done just by a few people. Unfortunately the situation in general is not very favourable, people often prefer their own interests and those regarding community are only adjacent.
Do you consider yourself to be an observer or popularizer of astronomy?
I am an observer astronomer, who can interpret astronomical news in simple and understandable manner to the general audience.
Besides your articles about latest news in astronomy published in your monthly journal, you write also for Meteor Astronomical Almanac and web site of HAA. You are also author of two books on asteroids. I assume that you read a lot, too. What is your favourite book?
It is Out of the darkness, story of discovering Pluto. I reckon it is not necessary to explain why. This book was written by Pluto's discoverer Clyde Tombaugh and the renown astronomer Patrick Moore.
Do you have a favourite astronomy related quote?
Yes I have. In fact it is more of a principle than a quote, and it should be in minds of every researcher. It is the so called Occam´s razor: when there are more explanations for a certain phenomenon, you should choose the least complicated one.
Finally I wonder whether you can name someone from great astronomers, who inspired you?
I can name already mentioned Tombaugh, or Edward Barnard and some others too. Even though they started with astronomy as a hobby, they achieved something extraordinary and at the end they became respected even by professionals.