Imaging What You Can't See
Comets are quite common among celestial phenomena. We are all familiar with images of their luxuriant tails as these visitors from our solar system's origins streak around the sun. Most of these images come from telescopes. Comets that are visible to the naked eye are quite rare, on average occurring once every 5 to 10 years. This year we are anticipating two such "naked eye" comets and the first of these is in the sky right now (March 2013) . Of course, I had to take shot at photographing this unusual object.
Comet PanSTARRS was discovered in June 2011, and is rather unimaginatively named after the telescopic survey that spotted it, the
|No Comet, but the Orion Nebula|
There is plenty of good information on the internet about where and when to look for the comet. Of course the first problem is the
My first clean shot at the comet was last Saturday night. We were invited to celebrate our friend John's birthday at their home in Chesterfield Village. Happily their house sits on a high ridge overlooking the Vermont Mountains to the west. A position out in there pasture provided a lovely unobstructed view to the setting sun and of the predicted position of PanSKARRS. A necessary requirement for seeing the comet was a location high enough to have a clear view of the horizon and this appeared to be perfect. As it turned out, timing of the observations was also a critical factor. PanSTARRS has been reaching its maximum brightness as it approaches the sun and can only been seen in a short period after sunset. Shoot too soon and the comet will be lost in the twilight brightness and too late, it will be obscured by the bright glow just above the horizon.
I settled in at a corner of John and Kathy's field, sitting on a stone wall. I arrived just as the sun was disappearing and began scanning the sky with my binoculars. I knew that the comet should be slightly south of the setting point of the sun on that night. There was a little haze right on the horizon but the sky was otherwise crystal clear. As the sky slowly darkened through the lovely "blue hour" of twilight and the
|"Above Us Only Sky"|
|The Blue Hour|
Second COLD Night
My next opportunity came Wednesday night. I wasn't sure the clouds would clear, but I went back to the ridge along route 63 in Chesterfield to give it a shot. Once again the weather cooperated with clearer skies, but colder temperatures. This time, I set up at a small
|Clouds Clearing at Sunset|
Chesterfield, New Hampshire
The first thing I noticed was the dramatic sunset images. Then, bang! I had taken about 10 sky images where I though the comet should be and miraculously, there the bastard was! Hovering above the pink horizon glow was PanSKARRS. It wasn't big. I had shot at about 100mm to include the entire sky from the moon to the horizon, but it was crystal clear. I still can't believe that I couldn't see it, but, thank goodness for digital photography and high ISO.
I have since worked the image in as many ways as I can imagine, with a range of zoom. I would have loved to have captured the comet a bit larger and against some interesting background, but it is surprisingly
If you are interested in taking a shot at the PanSKARRS, get out soon. Find a clear night and an unobstructed view to the western horizon. Get there after sunset and bundle up. There are excellent resources on the web to tell you where to look. Good luck, and if you don't see the little sucker, you can always wait 100,000 years for its return. Im the meantime, you can still enjoy the beautiful twilight hour, but don't forget to take a bunch of pictures anyway. You might get lucky.
For more information: NASA Site
|Comet from Walpole|
Addendum (A Third Night)
I took one more try and it was certainly the best for Comet PanStarr. My neighbor Bob & I went to Alyson's Orchard on a hilltop in Walpole New Hampshire. The comet was higher in the sky to start. It was great to actually SEE the comet with binoculars and faintly with the naked eye. I was able to get closer with my 100-400 Zoom. I am just about "cometed out", but I'm sure my enthusiasm will revive when PanStarrs returns in 100,000 years.
I was most impressed by the old Oak which has graced the peak for more than 200 years. This has always been one of my favorite majestic trees in the region. Sadly it is struggling after being hit by lightning a while back, but the folks at Alyson's are committed to saving this ancient witness to history. It struck me that the tree seemed to be beseeching the universe for salvation. I joined in.