Fourth time’s the charm

A few weeks ago I decided to get some photos of the comet NEOWISE that just passed through our solar system. It was literally a once-in-a-lifetime event because it won’t return for 6,800 years.

I read up on the comet. It was found by the telescope Near Earth Orbit Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) which was designed to find objects that might collide with the Earth. I read that the comet would appear low in the northeastern sky about an hour before sunrise. It was supposed to be bright and visible to the naked eye.

I picked the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton to shoot from because it’s far enough away from city lights which can visually drown out the stars, yet it’s also relatively close by, being only about a 1/2-hour drive north of Stockton. In the wee hours of July 9, I set out for the great comet hunt. Sunrise was at about 5:50 a.m. I figured that If I got there at about 4:30 a.m. should have plenty of time.

(7/9/20) Venus can be seen through some trees in the early eastern sky, shown here from the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

Driving though the darkness, I could see what looked like a very bright star but it seemed to be more east than northeast. As I continued to drive the sky at the horizon was slowly turning blue with the approaching sunrise. I got to my destination and set up my equipment. Night photos of the sky requires a sturdy tripod to hold the camera still for the long timed exposures that can last for long seconds.

As I shot, something wasn’t quite right. It was certainly bright but didn’t seem to have a hallmark comet’s tail. Maybe I just couldn’t see it with the naked eye, I thought. I stayed until just before the sun broke the horizon when the ambient light wiped away most of the stars.

(7/9/20) Venus, top, can be seen in the early eastern sky rising above the star Aldebaran, shown here from the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

When looking at my photos on the computer I still couldn’t see a tail. I read up on it a little more and discovered my mistake. I had actually photographed the planet Venus. I had been looking directly east. I should have been pointed more northward. I was disappointed but vowed to go out the next morning armed with new knowledge.

(7/10/20) The comet NEOWISE can be seen beneath the stars Capella, top, and Menkalinan, center, from Desmond Road at the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

I went to the same spot on the morning of July 10 at the same time. My friend Venus was out to the east and I looked to the northeast to find the comet. I saw nothing. Now, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be and I need glasses to see things at a distance in low light. But even with my specs, I couldn’t find the comet. So I focused a wide-angle lens on infinity, pointed it in the general direction of northeast and fired away. My hopes a bit dashed, I headed home.

I read up on it some more. If one drew a straight line diagonally from the star Capella down to another star Menkalinan and continued the line downward, that’s where you’d find the comet. To my surprise when viewing the photos on my computer, I had actually captured the comet. It was small and faint but I got it nonetheless. Apparently when it was said that the comet could be seen with the naked eye, that meant for someone with very good eyesight. It was suggested that using binoculars would make it easier to see

(7/11/20] The comet NEOWISE can be seen from Desmond Road at the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]


On the morning of July 11, I headed out once again, this time armed with a pair of binoculars. I arrived at the same place, perhaps a few minutes earlier. I set up my camera and broke out the binoculars. I quickly found the 2 guide stars which led me to the comet. I took a several wide-angle and medium shots then changed to a long telephoto lens. By the time it took me to switch, I lost the comet. The sky filled with too much ambient light and it couldn’t be seen anymore. I realized that part of my problem was I had been going out too late

(7/13/20] The comet NEOWISE is seen in the northeastern morning sky from the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton.The comet is named after the telescope that first discovered it in March 2020, the Near Earth Orbit Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. Launched in 2009, the telescope’s mission was to find any object that could an impact hazard to the Earth. According to NASA, the comet, about 3 miles in diameter, will pass harmlessly by the Earth at a distance of about 63 million miles. Look for the comet in the northeastern sky about an hour after sunset starting July 14 through July 23. It will appear as a faint star with a long tail. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

I needed to catch up on my lost sleep so I took July 12 off. I went out on the morning of July 13. This time I got there are 3:15 a.m. It was so early that even Venus hadn’t risen yet. Once again I set everything up and then I waited. Finally, at around 3:50 a.m. I spotted the comet through my binoculars. I worked quickly to get both wide-angle telephoto shots. When I could no longer see the comet, I headed home, satisfied with what I got.

(7/13/20] The comet NEOWISE is seen in the northeastern morning sky from the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

I later read that the comet would be seen in the evening about 1 hour after sunset a week after I had shot it in the morning. All could think about was how much sleep I could have saved had I read that sooner.
One of my tips I give to photographers who get a new camera is to read the instructions thoroughly. It seems I would do well to heed my own advice. At least I might get more sleep that way.

(7/13/20] The comet NEOWISE is seen in the northeastern morning sky from the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

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