Why couldn't NASA recover Comet ISON?

Over the past couple of weeks since we announced that Comet ISON had been recovered by amateur astronomer Bruce Gary, I have received a disproportionate number of emails, tweets and questions along these lines:
Why did it take an amateur astronomer to recover Comet ISON? Why didn't NASA do it? You have billions of dollars of telescopes! You even have Hubble!! Why aren't YOU doing this??!
The questions have all been variants of the above, some more polite than others, but the overall message has been the same: with all its extraordinary resources, why didn't NASA recover Comet ISON first?. There are a couple of reactions I have to this, and will address them in two parts. First, let me explain why it was an amateur astronomer that recovered Comet ISON.

Amateur astronomers are extremely well equipped, there are countless thousands of them, and they are at liberty to attempt to take whatever observations they choose, whenever they choose to do so. Major observatories on the other hand, whether ground based (e.g. Keck) or space-based (e.g Hubble) do not have any of those luxuries except for being well-equipped. In order to use one of these major observatories (again, e.g. Keck or Hubble), you must submit a proposal to them, and justify why you want to use this valuable (and costly) resource, and what the science benefit will be. They are outstanding resources and as a result are very heavily over-subscribed with astronomers wanting to perform valuable studies of stars, galaxies, nebula, nova, and such. These facilities are not sitting there for use at the whim of anyone that might decide to glance around at the night sky!

When it was recovered by Bruce Gary, Comet ISON was extremely low to the horizon, in rather bright skies, and generally awful viewing conditions. It was a remarkable feat, and he deserves tremendous credit for having made that observation! However, as the background sky brightness makes it very difficult to accurately interpret the data, there is limited science you can obtain from a comet in that instance other than "oh, look, there it is!". Given the extremely high-demand for observing time on major telescopes, that is far from a proposal-winning argument!

In addition to the somewhat limited science return, ISON was very near the Sun in the sky at this time, and major observatories (including Hubble) have very strict policies against pointing their telescopes too close to that region as it can be extremely unsafe for the instruments and rarely produces science that is more valuable than "dark sky" observations of other targets. In a few weeks time, ISON will be better-placed in the sky for ground-based observations, and the CIOC has approached most major observatories (Keck, IRTF, etc) and asked them to dedicate what is really an almost unprecedented amount of observing time for the comet. These observatories have very kindly obliged and consequently we should get a torrent of extremely valuable science from these major observations.

So that is why an amateur astronomer recovered comet ISON. Put simply, they have the equipment, the skill, and the freedom to point their telescopes absolutely anywhere they please! It was perfectly a valid question to ask but I have to confess that the tone of a few of these emails ruffled my feathers as they made it sound like it was actually a bad thing that Bruce was the one to make that incredible recovery observation! This angry undercurrent led me to question them in return: why is it a bad thing that an amateur astronomer recover ISON?

Science is supposed to inspire and excite everyone, and should not be the sole realm of elite scientists and their multi-million (or billion) dollar equipment. Sure, we could have tried to point a NASA-funded telescope at ISON and be the first to capture it, but then what? We get to announce that we used a multi-million dollar observatory to take an image that currently has limited science value, and put an entire observatory at jeopardy? Do we tell the amateur astronomy community that we don't need their help? That we've got our own toys, and we're not sharing?!


Surely it is far better that we make it clear that amateur astronomers can play a part in this campaign -- and they absolutely CAN! Indeed that is one of the fundamentals of our observing campaign: it's all-inclusive. Whether you have a huge, thousands-of-dollars telescope, or a simple DSLR camera, you can make a contribution to the Campaign! Astronomy educators and science teachers, outreach enthusiasts, amateur astronomy clubs need to hear this message and look to get involved. The message is a simple yet powerful one: get out there, look at the skies, learn, and hopefully inspire a child or two along the way. When you stand next to someone, young or old, and they see Saturn's rings for the first time with their own eyes through a telescope, that's when you truly appreciate why this is so very important.

Despite being mildly irked by hostile tones, I do sincerely appreciate when people ask us questions such as this. As scientists we often overlook how our programs and actions are being perceived by the public, and when we don't communicate clearly it just leads to confusion, frustration, speculation and misinformation. This helps no one, and simply serves to hurt the scientific process and mislead others. So contact us, ask us questions. Communicate with us so we can communicate with you!

Keep up-to-date on the latest ISON and sungrazing comet news via my @SungrazerComets Twitter feed. All opinions stated on there, and in my blog posts, are my own.