Since He Spotted His 13th Comet, Australia's Bill Bradfield Has Been Seeing His Name in Lights

updated 02/29/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/29/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the lonely hours of the Australian night, when the Southern Cross illuminates the moonless sky and no one is abroad except shepherds and lovers, Bill Bradfield looks to the heavens and finds things there that no man has found before.

A retired research scientist, Bradfield, 60, is the premier comet finder of our time. Working in the sparsely populated countryside around Adelaide in South Australia, he has discovered 13 of the dimly seen travelers from space, more than anyone else in this century. It was last year's discovery of comet Bradfield 1987s that made him champion, breaking a three-way, 3½-year tie with Minoru Honda of Japan and Antonin Mrkos of Czechoslovakia.

Bradfield became interested in astronomy when he was growing up on a dairy farm in New Zealand, and he got his first telescope at the age of 15. After graduation from the University of New Zealand he moved to Australia and a job with that country's Department of Defense. His sky watching became more than a casual hobby in 1970 when he joined the Astronomical Society of South Australia. Using a homemade telescope that he bought from another member, Bradfield spotted his first comet almost immediately. It had already been sighted by another amateur astronomer, but it fired Bradfield's enthusiasm. In March 1972, after 260 hours of hunting, Bradfield found his first undiscovered comet. Now named Bradfield 1972f, it is—like all comets—a small planetoid with an elliptical orbit around the sun.

Bradfield, who lives with his wife, Eileen, and daughter, Katherine, scans the sky two nights a week, away from the lights and pollution of Adelaide. "You are more likely to see comets close to the sun," he says, "and the best time is just after sunset and just before sunrise." Once a comet has been spotted, it is reported to the International Astronomical Union. When the sighting has been confirmed, the comet is officially accepted and named for the discoverer. It seems unlikely that Bradfield will surpass the all-time comet-spotting champion, Jean-Louis Pons of France, who discovered 37 in the 19th century, but who knows? The sky, after all, is the limit.

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