Charles T. Kowal

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Charles Thomas Kowal
Charles T. Kowal.jpg
Born (1940-11-08)November 8, 1940
Buffalo, New York, USA
Died November 28, 2011(2011-11-28) (aged 71)
Cinebar, Washington, USA
Citizenship United States
Alma mater University of Southern California
Known for Discovery of outer Solar System objects
Scientific career
Fields Astronomy
Institutions Caltech's Hale Observatory, STScI, APL
Minor planets discovered: 22 [1]
see § List of discovered minor planets

Charles Thomas Kowal (November 8, 1940 – November 28, 2011) was an American astronomer known for his observations and discoveries in the Solar System. As a staff astronomer at Caltech's Mount Wilson and Palomar Mountain observatories between 1961 and 1984, he found the first of a new class of Solar System objects, the centaurs, discovered two moons of the planet Jupiter, and discovered or co-discovered a number of asteroids, comets and supernovae. He was awarded the James Craig Watson Medal for his contributions to astronomy in 1979.


In the 1960s, Kowal observed with the Palomar 48" Schmidt telescope, contributing observations to noted cosmologist Fritz Zwicky's six-volume Catalogue of Galaxies and of Clusters of Galaxies.[nb 1] Kowal also began to search for Type Ia supernovae in other galaxies, in an effort led by Zwicky to calibrate the magnitudes of these exploding stars so that they could be used as standard candles, reliable measures of the distance of their host galaxies (work which in the present has led to accurate measurements of the expansion of the universe).[3] In the course of these Palomar supernovae surveys with the 48" Schmidt,[4] Kowal personally discovered 81 supernovae, including SN 1972e.

In 1973, Caltech astronomers Eleanor Helin and Gene Shoemaker began an observing program to search out and track previously unknown near-Earth asteroid, the Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey (PCAS), a photographic plate survey that began on the Palomar 18" Schmidt telescope. Although primarily employed by the supernova survey to observe on the 48" Schmidt, Kowal provided "crucial observations"[5] of particularly faint asteroids for the PCAS program with the larger telescope. His asteroid discoveries and co-discoveries include the notable asteroids Aten asteroid 2340 Hathor; the Apollo asteroids 1981 Midas, 2063 Bacchus, 2102 Tantalus and (5660) 1974 MA; the Amor asteroids (4596) 1981 QB and (4688) 1980 WF; and the Trojan asteroids 2241 Alcathous and 2594 Acamas. PCAS later moved to the 48" Schmidt, and ran in total for nearly 25 years, until June 1995.[nb 2]

Kowal provided observations of new Solar System discoveries and reports of new supernovae via the IAU circular system throughout the 1970s,[6] and searched for new objects. He discovered two moons of Jupiter: Leda in 1974 and Themisto in 1975, the 13th and 14th moons of Jupiter to be found.[7] Themisto was later lost (i.e. its orbit was not known well enough to reobserve it) and was not rediscovered until 2000.

Between December 1976 and February 1985, Kowal searched 6400 square degrees of sky in the ecliptic plane for distant, slow-moving Solar System objects.[8] Only one object was found beyond Jupiter: 2060 Chiron, discovered in 1977, which had the unusual characteristic of features both like an asteroid and a comet. It became recognised as the first object in the centaur class after a second one was discovered 15 years later. Centaurs are objects with unstable orbits which orbit between Jupiter and Neptune. They are probably drawn in from the Kuiper belt by alignments with larger planets. Chiron remains one of the largest such worlds known, and one of a handful that have a comet-like coma. Kowal also discovered or co-discovered the periodic comets 99P/Kowal, 104P/Kowal, 134P/Kowal-Vavrova, 143P/Kowal-Mrkos, and 158P/Kowal-LINEAR.

In 1980, Kowal's research in astronomical history found a 1613 drawing by Galileo Galilei showing Neptune near Jupiter, predating the discovery of Neptune in 1846;[9] Kowal was awarded the inaugural R. R. Newton Award for Scientific History for this "shockingly outré" finding.[10]

Kowal moved to the new Space Telescope Science Institute in 1985, where he monitored the instruments of the Hubble Space Telescope as one of the operations astronomers. His book Asteroids: Their Nature and Utilization was published in 1988, and a second edition in 1996.

From 1996 until his retirement in 2006, he worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, providing software for the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft's mission to land on the asteroid Eros and mission operations support for the NASA TIMED mission.

Kowal died on November 28, 2011 at the age of 71.[11]

Honours and awards[edit]

List of discovered minor planets[edit]

1876 Napolitania 31 January 1970 list
1939 Loretta 17 October 1974 list
1981 Midas 6 March 1973 list
2060 Chiron 18 October 1977 list
2063 Bacchus 24 April 1977 list
2102 Tantalus 27 December 1975 list
2134 Dennispalm 24 December 1976 list
2241 Alcathous 22 November 1979 list
2340 Hathor 22 October 1976 list
2594 Acamas 4 October 1978 list
2629 Rudra 13 September 1980 list
3163 Randi 28 August 1981 list
3924 Birch 11 February 1977 list[A]
4312 Knacke 29 November 1978 list[B]
(4596) 1981 QB 28 August 1981 list
(4688) 1980 WF 29 November 1980 list
(5660) 1974 MA 26 June 1974 list
(24617) 1978 WU 29 November 1978 list[B]
(73669) 1981 WL2 25 November 1981 list
(99953) 1978 ND 7 July 1978 list
(178284) 1978 WB1 29 November 1978 list[B]
(306375) 1980 RG1 13 September 1980 list
Co-discovery made with:
A E. Bowell
B S. J. Bus


  1. ^ Kowal was a coauthor on volumes 1, 5 and 6.[2]
  2. ^ The 48" Schmidt was then fully automated, and used for a successor survey, the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) survey, which ran on the Schmidt from April 2001 to April 2007.


  1. ^ "Minor Planet Discoverers (by number)". Minor Planet Center. 4 September 2016. Retrieved 24 January 2017. 
  2. ^ "Query Results from the ADS Database". Retrieved December 6, 2011. 
  3. ^ Kowal, C. T. (December 1968). "Absolute magnitudes of supernovae". Astronomical Journal. 73: 1021–1024. Bibcode:1968AJ.....73.1021K. doi:10.1086/110763. 
  4. ^ Kowal, C. T.; Sargent, W. L. W.; Zwicky, F. (June 1970). "The 1969 Palomar Supernova Search". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 82 (487): 736. Bibcode:1970PASP...82..736K. doi:10.1086/128951. 
  5. ^ Helin, E. F.; Shoemaker, E. M. (1979). "The Palomar planet-crossing asteroid survey, 1973–1978". Icarus. 40 (3): 321–328. Bibcode:1979Icar...40..321H. doi:10.1016/0019-1035(79)90021-6. 
  6. ^ "Author Query: Kowal, C. T. Query Results from the Astronomy Database". ADS. Retrieved December 6, 2011. 
  7. ^ Marsden, Brian G. (1975-10-07). "IAUC 2846: N Mon 1975 (= A0620-00); N Cyg 1975; 1975h; 1975g; 1975i; Sats OF JUPITER". Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, International Astronomical Union. Retrieved December 6, 2011. 
  8. ^ Kowal, C. T. (January 1989). "A solar system survey". Icarus. 77: 118–123. Bibcode:1989Icar...77..118K. doi:10.1016/0019-1035(89)90011-0. 
  9. ^ Kowal, Charles T. (December 2008). "Galileo's Observations of Neptune" (PDF). The International Journal of Scientific History. DIO. 15 (2008 December): 3. Retrieved 29 March 2016. 
  10. ^ "DIO $1000 Prizes". DIO Publishing. Retrieved December 5, 2011. 
  11. ^ News staff reports (December 3, 2011). "Charles T. Kowal, discovered 2 of Jupiter's moons". The Buffalo News. Retrieved December 5, 2011. 
  12. ^ "Awards: James Craig Watson Medal". National Academy of Sciences. 2011. Archived from the original on November 16, 2011. Retrieved December 6, 2011.