Tried to see the famous green comet in the night skies away from the city last weekend.
It was a lot harder than I expected, even with advice from a pro, because I hadn’t planned ahead enough.
The moon eclipsed most of the stars, and I couldn’t locate the faint comet, even with binoculars.
Only a small fraction of the human population will ever see the green comet scream past Earth this month. I tried to become one of them but it was much more difficult than I expected.
I’ve heard (and written about) a lot of hype about this comet, called C/2022 E3 (ZTF), or comet ZTF for short. The frozen ball of gas and dust returned for the first time since the ice age 50,000 years ago.
I was already camping at Pinnacles National Park this past weekend and thought I’d try to spot the rare celestial visitor myself.
The Pinnacles isn’t an official dark sky sanctuary, but it’s several hours from the big cities of San Jose and San Francisco, and you can usually see plenty of stars among its volcanic cliffs.
I thought my chances were pretty good. Maybe that was my first mistake.
I’d never tried to locate a particular object in the night sky before, so I reached out to Dan Bartlett, an astrophotographer who lives in California, for advice. He took beautiful photos of the comet, like this one:
I knew I would not see anything so clear. She has a telescope set up in the mountains to get those views. But I wanted to get as close as possible without spending a lot of money.
“It’s going to be quite large and nearly a quarter of the field in your binoculars,” Bartlett told me in an email.
If so, I figured I couldn’t miss it.
He said binoculars were essential, so I stopped at REI to buy a pair. Following advice from him and some astronomy blogs I read online, I chose a $120 pair labeled 8 x 42: the first number indicates their magnifying power, and the second measures the diameter of the objective lenses in millimeters. .
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be enough to spot the comet. I was hoping to capture at least a grainy green glow in the night sky, but I completely failed.
Finding faint objects in the sky is harder than I thought. It’s not something to do last minute, with little planning and no experience.
2 things I did right: Dressed for the weather and downloaded a constellation app
I can at least congratulate myself for staying warm. The forecast showed it was going to be as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit at the Pinnacles, and I’m cold, so I packed lots of layers and a warm hat, socks, and a scarf.
I also picked up some foot warmers and a rechargeable hand warmer that I got for Christmas.
I also foresaw another problem that could soon send me to my tent: I have no experience locating celestial objects other than the moon and Ursa Major. I would need to find Mars and the star Capella to identify the right area to look for the comet.
Bartlett said that Sky Safari was “hands down the best mobile phone app out there”. So I paid $4.99 to download it. The app used GPS to label constellations, planets, and stars as I moved my phone’s camera across the sky.
It helped me find Mars quickly – the orange glow was a clear clue, but it would have taken me longer to scan the sky myself. I probably wouldn’t have been able to locate Capella without Sky Safari.
Error no. 1: Pick a night when the moon would be bright
I thought I’d have to wake up before dawn to avoid the moon, but it turned out the moon would be in the sky during Friday night until 7am. So we might as well see the comet at a reasonable hour, Bartlett told me. .
That sounded like great news, since I’m not a morning person and especially don’t like to wake up before the sun. But it would have been better to wake up early for a moonless sunrise.
“The moon is going to be extremely bright and interfering. There’s no way around that,” Bartlett said. “It’s like if you decide to view the comet from a medium-sized city.”
He was more right than I thought.
Forget the comet – there weren’t even that many stars visible. It was almost as if I hadn’t left town. Even when I held the moon behind me and gave my eyes 15 minutes to adjust, I didn’t see much. Every time I looked at the moon, my eyes would reset and I had to let them adjust again.
Thin wisps of clouds floating across the sky probably made it even worse.
Error no. Myth #2: Not having tried before losing the internet
Comet ZTF was supposed to be 5 degrees north of the star Capella, which you can find by identifying Mars first. Locating Capella and looking north was easy. But what does 5 degrees mean?
I realized too late that I didn’t remember and hadn’t written it down. I didn’t have any services at Pinnacles, so I couldn’t google it. I knew the general area the comet must have been in, but not how big or small that area was. So I scanned far and wide around Capella, hoping to hit the jackpot.
I have seen many satellites and planes, but no comets.
One of the people camped with me said she had heard the comet would be between the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper. This was a huge space, and I couldn’t control it without internet, but it matched what Bartlett had told me.
This helped me pinpoint what might have been the problem: the space between Ursa Major and the Chapel passed through a large halo of light that surrounded the moon. I couldn’t see any stars in that bright ring.
As the night wore on, I started to lose hope. At one point, my camping buddies pointed out a plane hurtling past the moon, leaving a trail of condensation in its wake. They joked that it was the comet.
I snapped a picture so I’d at least have something to show for my efforts. Don’t let that green dot in the photo excite you – it’s just a glitch in my phone’s camera.
Error no. Myth #3: Thinking you can take pictures with your phone through binoculars
Even without a comet, I liked how clearer and better resolved the stars looked through my binoculars. I wanted to share the point of view and had seen online reviews for binoculars where people took pictures by holding their phone camera up to the lens.
I tried to do the same, but all images came like this:
The stars have not appeared at all. Taking photos directly from the sky, without binoculars, yielded slightly better results:
If I had spotted the green comet, I wouldn’t have been able to capture it on my iPhone X.
The next morning, in the sunlight, I tried the technique again with a sharper subject: trees on a hill. It still didn’t work.
After completely failing my attempt at amateur astronomy, I have even more respect for the planning, calculation and patience behind it.
Who knows, maybe I just looked at the green comet and didn’t recognize it because it was too faint. But next time I go looking for celestial objects, I will prepare a lot more. If I can, I’ll bring someone who knows what they’re doing.
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