Experiencing Comet PANSTARRS

Mar 14

Written by:
3/14/2013 7:58 AM  RssIcon

Dim comets abound.  At any given time, there's one from 8th to 14th magnitude somewhere overhead.  The problem is, seeing a comet that dim isn't easy, and often, not terribly rewarding for the visual-only observer.  So when a comet is likely to reach 1st magnitude, there's cause for optimism.  It means the comet can be found and seen relatively easily - that is to say, compared to most other comets.  But that doesn't mean it's easy to find or see like pointing at the sky and locating the Moon, for example.

Such was the case for me with PANSTARRS last night.

I got set up early - at around 7:05 or so, as my first photo time stamp shows 7:07 pm.  I had my camcorder with me to try and get a timelapse, but I definitely started it WAY too early.  Snapping some early pictures "just in case," the wind was blowing, it was below 30F, and I was COLD.  But this was my first - and perhaps only! - opportunity to REALLY see this comet while it was still 'bright.'  That is to say, above magnitude 1, if barely.  And I had what I felt was good reason to doubt how bright it would actually appear visually.

I figured photos would capture the comet before I'd see it visually.  My pictures were at 1600 ISO, and at wide open apertures, and were initially at 1/1250 shutter speed.  Over the next 25 minutes, the shutter speeds were decreasing, my body was growing colder, and I was getting slightly anxious that I wasn't seeing it.  This became particularly acute at 7:24, which was my "30 minutes past sunset" time.  Fingers were getting stiff, and I was starting to doubt what I might see.

I could see Jupiter.  I could see first magnitude Aldebaran!  Rigel, Sirius, Betelgeuse, Procyon towards the south, all twinkling as it they were laughing at me.   "Haha!  We're here... you can't see PANSTARRS though!"

I kept snapping pictures.  I kept scanning with binoculars. I KNEW the comet was about 10 degrees below the Moon.  Snap, then scan.  Snap, then scan.  For another 8 minutes, nothing.

Then... at 7:33, it was there.

Barely, faint, but in 7x50 binoculars I could see it.  I started taking pictures more often, and in earnest (7:33 was also my first photo that the comet was visible too.).  There were some low-lying clouds, and I didn't want to take the chance that the comet might drop behind them and I'd wind up with nothing.  As it turned out, those fears were unfounded.  I used three lenses on my DSLR: 50mm, 135mm and 200mm.  The best photos, oddly enough, seemed to come latest, as the comet was lower in the sky.  

But here's the thing: I didn't ever see it visually - well, not naked eye anyway.  I could see it in 7x50 binoculars quite nicely, though I was more interested in photos than observing it through the optics.

Want to know where you should try to look to find Comet PANSTARRS? See this page.

Granted, I was located in an area with a bright, always-on / blast everywhere "security light" at a school.  But even for the moment that I went around the corner to avoid the light, the comet wasn't visible naked eye.  Rather than worry about that, I kept snapping photos.  Eventually was taking shots that were multiple seconds long.  First 2, then 3.2, then 4, and then 6 (though those longest ones were not usable shots).    By then, I couldn't see the clouds, trees, or sky I was photographing.  It was too dark.  But the lengthy exposures picked up the photons I couldn't see.

Not bad for my likely "one shot at it" views of Comet PANSTARRS near 1st magnitude, given the poor weather I expect for the next few days.  

Whew!  I'm just glad that, out of 140 or so photos, I got about 6 that I'd call "good."  Here's a few of them, below:

50mm lensshot of Moon/Comet PANSTARRS, March 13, 2013 around 7:45 pm photo CometPANSTARRSwideviewbyDavidFullerMarch132013.jpg

ABOVE: Yes, the comet is there.  Look just below dead center, slightly above the wispy cloud.  Faint, small, but there.  50mm lens at 7:45 pm.

135mm lens shot of Comet PANSTARRS, March 13, 2013 around 7:50 pm photo CometPANSTARRSmediumviewbyDavidFullerMarch132013.jpg

ABOVE: One of my better 135mm shots.  Taken at 7:50 pm, as the sky was really getting dark.  This is a good representation of how it might appear in binoculars.  Maybe looks a tad smaller, and the head a tad brighter, but close.

200mm lens shot of Comet PANSTARRS, March 13, 2013 around 7:55 pm photo CometPANSTARRSbyDavidFullerMarch132013.jpg

ABOVE: Probably one of my best shots of the night.  Very dark at this point; 7:55 pm, a full hour past sunset.  200mm lens, I couldn't see the clouds, comet, or trees visible here.  But the camera could!

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.