My wife came across a news article on Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) while surfing the internet. This sparked a weekend of watching end of the world movies like Deep Impact, Armageddon, 2012 and Independence Day. It also motivated me to set up my scopes to take a real time look at the comet.
Making the picture above was a last minute thought as I sat in my chair staring at the heavens. My neighbor a couple of houses up the road had their front porch lights on. This light shines directly on my telescope setup. Any light other than starlight is an astronomer’s worst enemy. Not only does it ruin your night vision, but artificial light floods the night sky keeping the fainter stars and deep sky objects hidden from view. I decided to see if I could create an image of my refractor from the illumination of my neighbor’s porch lights. I have to say that I do like the results. I am no astrophotographer by any means, but I plan to start learning how to take better pictures of the night sky and deep sky objects.
As mentioned in the caption, the bright star in the upper right corner of the frame is not a star at all. It is the planet Jupiter rising in the constellation Leo. The Big Dipper can be seen rising in the North on the far left of the frame. Not pictured is another telescope that I had setup next to the refractor; my 10″ Newtonian Reflector. While I used both scopes to observe the comet, I used the 10″ more on the comet as it can gather much more light than the 4″ refractor and thus produce a bigger, brighter and more detailed image of deep sky objects and diffuse objects like comets. I mainly use the refractor for observing bright star clusters, double stars and planetary work.
Making the picture of the scope was the last thing I did before packing up and heading back to the house. Rewinding a bit to earlier in the evening, you would have found me loading up one of my favorite astronomy software, Carte Du Ciel. After downloading the latest comet data, I located the comet for the time I would be observing. The comet was almost at the zenith. At a magnitude of 4.5 and almost aligned with two of the brighter stars in the constellation Triangulum, finding the comet proved to be an easy task. Once I knew where to look, I could see it without the aide of a telescope even with the crescent moon in the West. To the naked eye, the comet appeared as small faint diffused glowing ball in the sky. The telescope revealed a bright coma and what appeared to be the nucleus at the center. The tail was not evident until I my eyes were better dark adapted. Even then I could not detect it without using averted vision. The tail appeared as a faint glowing wisp that disappeared when I looked directly at it. To put things in perspective, this comet is about 0.65 au (astronomical units) from Earth. One au is the distance from the Earth to the Sun which is 93 million miles. Thus this comet is 60.5 million miles away from us. This may seem like a great distance and it is, but in astronomical terms, it is very close. Nothing to worry about though, this comet’s trajectory does not collide with Earth and it will not be back for another 8000 years. I believe it is safe to say that I won’t be around to see it again.
This was a nice observing session. It was one that I have not had in a long time. I have photography to blame for that. Since I got bit by the photo bug, my scopes have seen less and less play time. That is about to change. Being out under the night sky brought back all of those feelings I had when I first looked to the stars. Excuse the pun, but when I first really understood the gravity of the situation with regards to the universe and my place in it, it was a sobering moment of vulnerability and humility. When I did finally act on my child hood dream of owning a telescope, I started a journey of astronomical discovery and self discovery. I have spent many nights under the stars in freezing Winters and hot muggy Summers. Kicking back and taking in the night sky is so relaxing. The stillness of the night gives way to contemplation and a spiritual awakening. I guess you could say it is a form of therapy.