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A meeting with Albert Jones, discoverer of SN1987A

Saturday, December 31

Lynette Rens of Johannesburg writes:

I've just come back from New Zealand where I was lucky enough to contact amateur astronomer Albert Jones, discoverer of Supernova 1987A, who lives not only in the same town as my hosts, but in the same suburb!  In chatting, he mentioned the late, much missed, Danie Overbeek, as well as Jan Hers, to whom he sends his regards.

Albert Jones is a dedicated variable star observer, and at the age of 85 still works every night without fail on the stars in his programme, which is not easy when the sun sets after 10 pm in summer in New Zealand. He uses a 12.5 inch f5 telescope which he built to his own design in 1948 (yes, nearly 60 years ago). It is on a fork mounting made from a large industrial pulley wheel with two arms welded on.

The night he discovered the Supernova, the brightest extra-galactic supernova in history, he had been at a hiking club committee meeting. It was high summer, 24 February (1987 of course) with corresponding late sunset, and he didn't stay for the socialising afterwards as it was getting dark and he had to get to his variables. 

He went home and started his observations, then noticed clouds coming over so decided to check quickly on some stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud before they were obscured, and found an unexpected bright blue star.  His initial thought was that he had pointed the telescope incorrectly, but no – the 3 stars he wanted were definitely there, and so was the intruder. The clouds intervened before he could make a magnitude estimate, and he phoned Frank Bateson, director of the Variable Star section of the RAS of NZ.

He went back to his telescope and the clouds cleared so he was able to make his magnitude observation and again phoned Frank Bateson who then phoned Siding Springs Observatory in Australia. They of course immediately stopped their observations to check the Supernova, and phoned Brian Marsden of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in the USA. Albert kept observing the Supernova and other variables until 1 a.m., had a short nap, then resumed observing until dawn.

Albert Jones has also discovered 2 comets – the first in August 1946 and the second in 2000. He holds the record for the greatest interval between comet discoveries, as well as being the oldest observer to discover one.

He has had a minor planet named after him, and when he gave a talk "Six Decades of Visual Photometry" in July 2002 at a workshop in Brussels, and another offer of a minor planet name was made, he asked that it be named after his wife, Carolyn who has been very supportive of his astronomy. However, there was already a minor planet of that name so they compromised and named Minor Planet 9171 Carlyndiane, using her first two names.

It was a great honour to be able to talk to him.

Lyn Rens




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