Sunday, March 10, 2013

Comet Spotted!

This year seems to be destined to be the "Year of the Comet".  As I mentioned in a recent post, the comet du jour is PanSTARRS, comet C/2011 L4, discovered in June, 2011 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, thus the acronym of a name!  For the last few weeks, it has been a hit in the southern hemisphere, since it was south of the sun and visible in a dark sky there.  But today, not only did it reach perihelion, it's point nearest the sun, but also was the same declination of the sun, so making it visible equally well from northern or southern hemisphere.  While I made a pilgrimage to Gates Pass last Thursday in an attempt to spot it in a gap in the clouds, the clouds won that encounter, and we've had a couple blustery, cloudy days since.

But today the storm has passed, and we had deep blue sky all day, so when Melinda awoke this afternoon (she worked the last 3 nights), we again drove the 15 miles to Gates pass, arriving well before sunset to claim a parking spot and set up some gear.  I'm glad we did because by the time sunset hit the nearest parking was down the road a half mile and we had quite the crowd gathered to look through our telescopes looking for a little fuzzy spot! The shot at left is of the little pavilion with informational plaques informing of local lore, history and geology.  I also photographed the point of sunset because that is where the comet would later appear to set about 60 minutes afterwards.

I set up a sturdy tripod with the little Meade apochromatic refractor for visual use, running at about 18 power for folks.  I also set up my little Byers Cam-Trak equatorial mount in case I wanted to take exposures more than a few seconds in length.  Because the sturdy tripod I normally use was already in use, it was set up on a stone wall, aligned with my best guess where north was, and used my Canon XSi with the 70-200 zoom set to 200mm.  I believe I was the first to spot the comet at our overlook, a couple minutes after 7pm, seen in binoculars above and left of where the sun had set, right where it was supposed to be, a little higher than I expected.  I took a blind picture of the piece of sky, and sure enough, zooming in, it was visible with its little tail!  As it got darker, I got the shot at left, this one a 6 second exposure at F/4 with the 200mm lens, ISO 400.

Unfortunately, today it never appeared in a dark sky so was tough to spot.  We were able to show it to a few dozen people in the scope, and while I could easily spot it in the binocs, never saw it naked eye.  Melinda, with her bionic eyes (eye surgery last year), was able to hold it in sight.  But even while it was getting dark, it was also setting into the murk and before it set was tough to pick out in binoculars.  I'm hoping it will be a little more impressive in a darker sky, because even I wasn't much impressed with this little glow!  But I'll keep on trying!


Ken Spencer said...

So great to hear that you were able to see PanSTARRS! I have been watching here every day, waiting for you to show us what you have been able to find. Many friends here in the east have had no luck at all. Stan Honda did get a photograph a couple of days ago of the comet, which is amazing - he was shooting from Manhattan!

Anonymous said...

GREAT pictures... Love the one with Kitt peak...

The Dettmanns