The SOHO comet hunting community was greatly saddened to hear of the death of XingMing Zhou, one of the most successful SOHO comet hunters (with 63 SOHO comet and 1 SWAN comet discoveries to his credit). He died on August 5, 2004 at age 39 of injuries received in a motorcycle accident the previous day. Zhou, who lived in Xinjiang province in northwestern China, was attending a conference for astronomy educators from Taiwan and the mainland in Fuzhou, a coast city in Fujian province across the strait from Taiwan. The accident occurred in Liancheng in Fujian province. Zhou is survived by his wife, Xin Yu, and daughter, Yingzhen.
XingMing was born in March 1965. An amateur astronomer since 1979, he started searching the night sky for comets in 1985 after graduation from the Lanzhou meteorology school, and logged around 1,500 hours in night-sky comet hunting in almost 2 decades. Since 1989, he observed with a 150mm refractor, and was recognized by CBAT for the independent discovery of two comets, 1990n1 (Tsuchiya-Kiuchi) and 122p/de Vico. (I remember him saying that he probably would have gotten full discovery credit for one comet if there hadn’t been a communications glitch that delayed receipt of his report of it.) He also did much observing of already known comets, and was an active meteor observer. He worked as an administrator in the state meteorological bureau.
In addition to his night-sky comet observation and hunting, he discovered 63 SOHO comets (4th most among SOHO hunters), and was the co-discoverer of C/2004 H6 (SWAN), visible in the night sky at the time of his death. Among his SOHO finds, his favorite was C/2002 G3, one of the brightest non-Kreutz comets found in SOHO. (There was hope it would become visible in the night sky, but it disintegrated.) He also found C/2001 U9, among the brightest SOHO Kreutz comets.
His website, the Silk Road Astronomy Pages (in Chinese), contains a wealth of information about SOHO and night-sky comets, as well as his own observations. It is far to get a full grasp of what he was saying through the electronic translation programs, but his writing seemed quite eloquent. In 2003, when the future of SOHO’s comet program was in doubt and no one was officially confirming claims, he was one of the few to continue to post detailed records of the new SOHO comets being discovered, on his site. He kept a running total of the SOHO comet discoveries by each hunter; Jim Danaher has continued XingMing's list, which he intends to update in English and Chinese, on Jim's own site.
XingMing had an exceptional eye for finding SOHO comets. He was equally adept at finding comets of all kinds (Kreutz, other-group, and sporadic) and in any type of images (C2, C3, black-and-white, and SWAN). Several of the comets of his that I confirmed were exceedingly faint, and it’s a wonder that he was able to find them at all.
I do much of my hunting for SOHO comets in the mid-evening, when most of the European hunters are presumably asleep. As the hour drew towards midnight, and it was mid-morning in China, he would often be searching; I knew because he would often report comets that I hadn't seen, or beat me to a discovery. Though occasionally I’d find one first, he was definitely a better hunter than I. I had the pleasure of sharing two discoveries with him. This February 24, I reported the trailing member of what became a moderately bright C3 comet pair, and about an hour later, he reported the leading component, which I had missed. Then on May 5, we both sighted an obvious, tailed comet in black-and-white C2 images. After the second image, he reported it 7 seconds before me, and we got joint credit for that discovery (such as it is for SOHO comets: mention on the discovery bulletin).
Once he chided me for reporting a comet “prematurely,” with just two positions but no other obvious cometary characteristics—it turned out to be a real comet, one that he’d obviously been following, but he thought I had jumped the gun and wasn’t playing fair. Whatever the case, it did give me pause to pay greater attention to the accuracy of my posts, but while I still jump the gun on occasion, he was very accurate and seldom submitted an erroneous report. I’m sure that ultimately, trying to compete against his excellence and the knowledge that on any given night he was probably there looking as well, improved my own comet-hunting skills. I know there will be nights when I will look through the SOHO images and be stunned by his absence, as I am now—that he isn’t there focusing his eyes and mind on the images any more. And I know that late some evening, when I manage to dredge one of those faint comets, which he was so good at finding, out of the noise, when I file a report and it comes up alone and unclaimed by anyone else, my first thought will be “It should have been XingMing’s.”
In September 2004, a main-belt asteroid, Minor Planet 4730, was named (4730) Xingmingzhou in his honor. The citation reads: "(4730) Xingmingzhou = 1980 XZ, Discovered 1980 Dec. 7 at the Purple Mountain Observatory. Xing-Ming Zhou (1965-2004), a meteorologist and comet hunter from Xinjiang province, detected 64 near-sun comets in SOHO's LASCO images and one in SOHO's SWAN images. He also independently discovered two other comets. A tireless and precise observer, he chronicled his observations on the Silk Road Astronomy website."(written August 5, 2004; revised September, October 2004)