September 15, 2009
It seems the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory has been experiencing close encounters of the furred kind. Beginning in 2008, scientists noticed that a strange being—or beings—began paying repeat visits to the building that houses the MEarth project—a collective of eight robotic telescopes designed to search for distant planets—and eventually defaced the equipment. When paying a visit to the facility to shoot an episode of NOVA ScienceNOW, host Neil deGrasse Tyson remarked on the mysterious paw prints gracing MEarth.
Enough was enough. This thing had to be caught and, after rigging a live trap, the vandal was revealed to be a ring-tailed cat. A raccoon relative, the cat had likely entered the facility in search of an insect-centric meal. The animal was released at a spring some distance away from the mountaintop observatory. (Another ringtail cat was also trapped and released elsewhere, while a third has been observed at the nearby Whipple Observatory Base Camp. You can see some of this third visitor’s shenanigans here on YouTube.) In spite of the mild trouble they’ve caused, these creatures have endeared themselves to some of the staffers. “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!”
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