What’s small, four-legged, and leaves dusty paw prints on telescope mirrors? That’s what astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian’s Whipple Observatory in southern Arizona were trying to find out.
The mystery visitor first appeared in 2008, wandering into a building that holds the MEarth project — eight robotic telescopes designed to search for distant planets. Over the months that followed, the stealthy critter (or critters) returned, eventually marring five of the modest-sized telescopes.
With a little ingenuity and a live trap, the mystery was finally solved: The nighttime visitor proved to be a ringtail cat, a member of the raccoon family native to arid regions of North America, particularly the American Southwest.
The ringtail cat was released unharmed at a spring some distance away from the mountaintop observatory. Not long after, a second ringtail also was trapped and released. Yet another ringtail was captured on film snatching a snack at the Whipple Observatory base camp.
Anyone can watch for the nocturnal interlopers via the MEarth Webcam.
“We’re considering making the ringtail cat the unofficial mascot of the MEarth project,” said project leader David Charbonneau. “With those big eyes, they’ve certainly got the night vision to be natural-born astronomers!”