Leonid Elenin, MAI graduate: "I discovered six comets in my career"

March 10, 2023
Leonid Elenin, MAI graduate: "I discovered six comets in my career"

Leonid Elenin is one of the most famous Russian astronomers, despite the fact that he has no special education. Leonid discovered six comets and about 1,600 asteroids. He fell in love with watching the starry sky as a child passionately, and turned his hobby into profession later. Recently, the astronomer wrote a science fiction book, rather resembling a production novel about the search for space objects threatening the Earth. In an interview to Vedomosti. City" Leonid Elenin told about how he retrained from a programmer to an astronomer, whether it is easy to observe the starry sky over Moscow and how top managers of IT companies fulfill their childhood dreams.

– I got excited with astronomy at school after reading the book "Treasures of the Starry Sky", written by Felix Ziegel, the famous popularizer of science. In high school, I already had binoculars and the Tourist-3 telescope. With their help, I observed stars, bright asteroids and sketched how they move. I was not going to become an astronomer scientist and got enrolled in Moscow Aviation Institute for Radioelectronics. After graduating as a programmer, I served in the army and used the money paid during his service to buy the first Celestron C6-N telescope. When I saw a huge number of stars, satellites of giant planets and rings of Saturn – it was an indescribable feeling. Astronomy was just a hobby, but I continued to read books and specialized magazines. And, in 2007 I saw an article on a foreign website about remote observations (a professional telescope is in a good place from where it is convenient to conduct observations. You can connect to it via the Internet, point the telescope where you want, shoot the necessary frames to study them on your computer. – "Vedomosti. City"). It was what I needed: I could continue to live and work in Moscow in my main specialty and simultaneously study astronomy with the help of telescopes that I would hardly ever be able to buy.

– It turns out that this image from books and movies that astronomers sit for hours in front of telescopes and watch the starry sky through the eyepiece at night is wrong.

– Absolutely wrong. Only astronomy enthusiasts have visual observations left, and most of them are already engaged in astrophotography – obtaining digital images of space. Today, visual observations are just for relaxation and that is a way to have fun. You sit down, look at the sky at night, and there are myriads of stars flying. It feels amazing. For professionals, everything is more prosaic, many telescopes are controlled remotely. I get data from observatories in the Altai Mountains and Mongolia, hundreds of images with white dots-stars and study them on a computer in Moscow.

– And where did such interest, motivation to continue observations in a scientific format come from?

– It's simple: in 1996, comet Hyakutake passed very close to our planet. And then, in 1997, comet Hale-Bopp flew past the Earth. It was visible to the naked eye and made a lot of noise then. For me, a 16-year-old teenager, these were very exciting events. Then two Hollywood blockbusters were released simultaneously – "Collision with the Abyss" and "Armageddon". This further fueled my interest, but on the other hand there was the asteroid-comet danger. I began to dream of discovering my own comet, or at least an asteroid, and maybe someday save humanity from the threat from outer space.

– And now, 10 years later, is there an opportunity to make your dream come true?

– Not right away. There were no such remote observatories in Russia at that time. So, I started writing to various American observatories. 20 of them refuse. Only the Tzec Maun Charitable Foundation responded. The Foundation provides American schoolchildren with remote access to telescopes in New Mexico so that students can do laboratory work and reports on astronomy based on real observations, and not from library books. As a result, I was provided with this opportunity as some "second-year student", although I was already under 30 years old. First, I discovered and observed previously unknown stars. Then I started searching for new asteroids. And already on December 1, 2008, I discovered my first one. It was an event of great magnificence for me! I realized that my dream of discovering a comet, which in 1997 seemed absolutely impossible to me, is quite achievable. However, completely different telescopes and much more observation time were needed. In 2008, another economic crisis broke out, and I was unemployed, and started looking for some options. At one of the thematic events, I was offered a job in space debris research. So, I ended up at the Institute of Applied Mathematics named by Keldysh, RAS, where I still work. In mid-2010, we launched a telescope in the US state of New Mexico and began searching for asteroids. The discoveries went by the dozens, then by the hundreds. Less than six months later, on December 10, 2010, I discovered my first comet C/2010 X1 (Elenin). It was the first comet discovered by a Russian citizen after the collapse of the USSR. After that, Russian astronomy lovers cheered up. The discoveries of our other amateur astronomers have begun. One of them, Gennady Borisov, has already discovered more comets than I have (10 comets, including the first known interstellar comet 2I/Borisov in 2019 – "Vedomosti. City").

– But is this not the end of your hunt?

– The excitement just got bigger. In 2011 I discovered the second comet. Then my colleagues from the Pulkovo Observatory said in an interview that Elenin, apparently, had found some kind of formula for searching for comets and would now begin to detect them like a machine gun. After that, I was cut off for three years. I watched even more than before, processed the pictures, but there was nothing. During my career, I have discovered six comets, thus made my dream come true, and even more. Asteroids are a bit more complicated. Today I have more than 1600 objects that are waiting for verification. 125 of them will actually become mine for now.

– “Waiting for verification” – what does it mean?

– After the asteroid is discovered, it is given a temporary designation – year and index (month of discovery and serial number); for example, the first asteroid discovered on January 1, 2023, will be called 2023 AA. But obtaining such a designation is not the moment of the official discovery at all, because we still do not know the orbit of this asteroid well and it has been being clarified for 10 years. Until the asteroid's orbit is fully calculated, there is no certainty that it will not be lost anymore, the discovery is not counted. But when this happens, the asteroid is already assigned a permanent serial number – say, 300 252, and it is included in all catalogs. But this is not the end either. After cataloging, according to complex algorithms, the priority is revealed — who is the official discoverer of this asteroid after all. All because, for example, I discovered an object in 2015, observed it for a month, it flew away from the Earth and disappeared. In 2019, someone found it again – randomly got into the review. We realized that this is exactly the same object of 2015, observed it again and clarified the orbit. And then it turns out that a certain object of 2000, which has a different number, and ours of 2015 are the same celestial body. It's just that in both cases the orbit was not fully calculated. As a result, we added the calculations of 2000 to our 2015 and 2019 – and got a fairly accurate orbit. And now the question is: who is the discoverer in this case? Previously, it was defined as follows: the staff of the Minor Planet Center (an official organization that, with the assistance of the International Astronomical Union, collects and systematizes observations of small bodies of the Solar System — ed.) sat and watched – whose contribution was the most significant. For example, for a whole month I kept track of my asteroid, carried out the measurements, and another astronomer had only 1-2 nights of observations. In this case, I will get the priority. But now the situation has changed. To simplify the procedure, now whoever saw the first asteroid is considered the official discoverer. Therefore, today I have more than 1600 objects that are waiting for such verification. But 125 of them will actually become mine in the end so far. It's just that I started searching in 2008, and before that the Americans observed a lot, because of this, measurements of 1998, etc., are often tied to my asteroids, and according to the new rules of discovery, they go to them. Such rules were introduced in the fall of 2009. And here's just a proportion: according to the old rules, I found 20 asteroids, of which 18 are my priority. And according to the new rules, more than 1,500 are discovered and only a little more than 100 of them are mine.

– Not so long ago you published a science fiction book "Bortl's Limit", and there is such a passage: "A healthy bit of vanity is inherent, probably, in all scientists. We can say that, going into science, people make their choice between the opportunity to get rich by succeeding in business, and the opportunity to perpetuate their name by making a discovery." Are there any options to combine? Is it possible to be a successful entrepreneur and make astronomical discoveries?

– Yes. I have friends who, back in Soviet times, attended the astronomical circle at the Palace of Pioneers, and then went into business and became top managers of IT companies. For example, one of the top managers of a large system integrator, fascinated by astronomy, built himself a remote observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile with one meter telescope and several smaller ones. There are 350 clear nights on average per year, so you can observe remotely. Plus, you can periodically fly there to check your household, drink good Chilean wine and eat meat. Others buy access to a remote telescope, do astrophotography, and this is an extremely expensive hobby. Even an amateur astronomical camera costs several thousand dollars, and the price of professional ones starts from $ 10,000. And it is quite difficult to get them in the current conditions. To assemble a decent private observatory in the Moscow region, you need to spend several million rubles on the camera, the same amount on the telescope, buy a filter wheel and filters themselves, build a pavilion and put a dome. On average, it will take from 5 million to 10 million rubles. This is the price of a good car, but many people in Moscow can afford it though.

– You have repeatedly spoken about Moscow as a city not adapted for astronomical observations. Can I find out more, what are our problems here?

– In Moscow, there is a weak penetration – we see only the brightest stars with the naked eye. And in a good place for observations, thousands of stars are visible at once. In the south of Russia near the Black Sea, for example. Taking into account the fact that Moscow is a northern city, there are no real astronomical nights in our latitudes, when the Sun sinks below the horizon by 18 degrees and does not illuminate the sky. In addition, megacities produce smog and light pollution. It is not very convenient to observe even 150 km from the MKAD. When you fly in an airplane at night, a dome of bright light is always visible over Moscow, even if the sky is completely covered with clouds. In general, Moscow has a poor astroclimate, there are very few nights with clear skies during the year – from 80 to 100. There are very few places in Russia with an excellent astroclimate – Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Region and the Altai Mountains.

– If a person wants to observe the starry sky without going far away, how many kilometers does he need to drive away from Moscow?

– There are special maps of light pollution. This is a difficult question, here it is rather necessary to look at specific locations in the Moscow region, where there are large forests, etc. But at least for 100, and better for 150 km to see at least something.

–  And what kind of equipment, telescopes would you recommend to buy for amateur astronomers?

– I would advise you to start with reading books on astronomy and generally understand how much a person is interested in this topic. There is no need to buy an expensive telescope right away, start with a simple one. A good pair of binoculars or a small telescope with a lens diameter of 60 mm for 20,000 rubles will help determine whether there is any interest in astronomical observations or not. Then take a telescope similar to the one I had – Celestron C6-N. And, if it goes well, then you will understand what you need. The options will unfold, as it happened in my life to me.

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