Comet chasing

On March 10 I went on the hunt for the Pan-STARRS comet. News reports and science websites said that the comet would be visible to the naked eye near the western horizon just after sundown during several days around the middle of the month.

I went out to Buckley Cove Park overlooking the deep water channel. I parked, set up my camera on a tripod, and waited for the sun to set. The park gives a fairly unfettered view of the western sky, and I thought it would be a good vantage point to get my shot. Not exactly sure of where in the west the comet would be, I scanned the horizon back and forth. The sun sank below the horizon, and the colors of the sky slowly turned to and orangish glow.

Although the sky above Stockton was clear, a thin veil of clouds obscured the horizon, and the chances of getting a clear view of the comet, much less a picture of it, were dwindling.

Then I saw a tiny pinprick of light appear, and my hopes picked up. It looked a bit higher in the sky than what the reports said, and it seemed to be rising rather than setting, which the stories I read said it would do. Soon I realized it was moving a bit too fast, as well. It was some sort of high-altitude aircraft — or an alien spaceship, if you’re into that kind of thing. But it certainly was not a comet.

A few others were out hoping to get a peek at the comet, but the heavens grew dark with no celestial sightings, so most gave up and drove away. I, too, packed up my camera and tripod and left a little disappointed, but I knew there would be a few other chances to get a shot

On March 11, I took my 15-year-old son for an evening basketball practice, so I made sure I had my equipment with me so that I could shoot the comet afterward. The practice went long, and by the time we got out, it was too late to get a shot. Besides, once again clouds obscured the horizon. But the next night was supposed to have the potential for even better photos. A thin crescent moon was to appear near the comet, making for a dual celestial photo.

March 12 was to be the best opportunity to shoot the comet. It was supposed to appear, once again, relatively low on the horizon, fairly near that thin crescent moon.

It was clear most of the day, which raised my hopes for a good comet picture. But by the late afternoon/early evening, the clouds again scattered across the horizon. To minimize light pollution that might obscure the night sky, my 17-year-old daughter and I went to the Stone Lake Wildlife Refugee and parked at the dead end of a street near Elk Grove.

There were already several other people there as the sun set and the sky turned a fiery orange. A while later, a large flock of honking geese took flight and filled the sky as it turned to hues of pink and purple.

As the sky darkened, the clouds still lingered, and my hopes of getting a shot of the comet were beginning to fade. Then the crescent moon descended from a bank of clouds into an open horizontal sliver of sky. News reports said that the comet would be visible to the naked eye and appear to the left of the moon. Perhaps my eyes were too naked, but I could not see it. I could make out a high-altitude airplane’s lights blinking on and off as it passed in front of the moon, but no comet. I asked my daughter if she could see it with her fresh 17-year-old’s eyes, but she could not find it, either. Then I heard a guy next to me fire off a few frames of his camera. He “chimped” the picture on the monitor of his digital camera and showed his companion. I looked over their shoulders and saw indeed that he did get a shot of the comet, which was kind of a dim hazy dot. I looked back up but still couldn’t see it. The moon was beginning to sink below more clouds with no other open areas of sky so I “guesstimated” where the comet was and decided to fire off a few shots in the dark.

I reviewed the photo but still couldn’t see it until I used the monitor’s zoom function. There it was, a faint smudgy dot. I shot off a few more frames and then both comet and moon left the clear patch of sky and disappeared behind the clouds.

This November, the Comet ISON is set to appear in the skies. It is expected to be extremely bright (brighter than the moon at some points, it is believed) and visible to the naked eye. Hopefully there will be clear skies for the next comet hunt.

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