Comets and computers: The alumnus who helped to capture the first images of the Shoemaker–Levy 9 Comet

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Roque de los Muchachos Observatory with starry skies in the background

In the 1990s, alumnus Ken Prydderch (BSc Geology 1991) built computers for people and businesses. When he received a phone call in 1994 whilst at home in Chester, it wasn’t just the worlds of comets and computers that collided…

On Ken’s list of customers was a local newspaper in Tenerife called Island Connections. However, it still came as some surprise when he received a call from the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory located on the island of La Palma. The caller informed him that the Shoemaker-Levy comet was due to impact Jupiter in a few days. And the request: to supply the best quality graphic card in a new computer to plug into a Herschel telescope via their network computer.

Ken Prydderch todayKen said: “At this time the Hubble telescope could not be used, as an aberration in the mirror prevented it being focussed, so the only people in the world who could photograph the comets hitting Jupiter were the Roque de los Muchachos.”

Ken built the computer in Chester, and flew to La Palma and on arrival was met by one of the scientists from the Observatory. Checking everything was in order, he set up the computer successfully before catching a flight home just a short while later.

On his arrival home, Ken received a phone call from a man named Alan from the Observatory, who asked Ken where the software was… It was in Ken's jacket pocket. On a floppy disk.

The next day four comets were due to hit Jupiter. Thinking pragmatically, Ken found that the Observatory were on the internet and accessed Demon, an internet service provider, and sent the information to Alan via the internet from the floppy disk. Six hours later Alan called to say it was all working.

Early next morning the Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 collided with Jupiter, providing the first direct observation of an extra-terrestrial collision of Solar System objects. Ken was still in bed when the fax machine started, with the first four images in the world of the Shoemaker-Levy comets hitting the surface of Jupiter. Ken still has them to this day!