I tried to see the green comet and totally failed. I needed more planning and equipment than I expected.

woman with curly hair wearing blue hat selfie smiling in front of curtain

The author camped at Pinnacles National Park to try to see the green comet ZTF.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

  • 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.

colorful cliff rising above the shady canyon

Pinnacles National Park is full of volcanic rock formations.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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:

green comet with a diffuse white skirt and long white tail

Comet ZTF on January 28, 2023.Dan Barlett

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.

telescope set up in the hold dug out of the deep snow at the bottom of the porch stairs in the snowy mountains

Dan Bartlett’s setup for photographing the comet.Dan Barlett

“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. .

hand holding black box containing binoculars inside retail store

My new binoculars at REI.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

orange pack of foot warmers on wooden background next to hand holding black and white electronic hand warmer

I refuse to have cold feet!Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

the phone screenshot shows the app projecting the constellations in the night sky

A screenshot from the app that showed me where to find Mars and Capella.Sky Safaris

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.”

full moon snow moon december

The moon wasn’t completely full, like in this photo of Lake Louise in Canada, but it was close enough.Andy Clark/REUTERS

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.

cloudy skies

Partly cloudy weather may have also helped thwart my attempts to locate comet ZTF.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

woman lying on ground on backpack wearing green pants jacket and headlamp looking through binoculars

I was stargazing from the ground when standing and craned my neck too far and posed by the fire for this photo.Courtesy of Arden Wells

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.

black night sky with bright moon and an aerial contrail flowing past

We joked that this plane and its contrail was the comet.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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

woman wearing headlamp and thick jacket holding phone up to binoculars

I tried to replicate a photography strategy I’ve seen in binocular reviews and it didn’t work.Courtesy of Arden Wells

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 black image shows nothing

Through binoculars, my phone failed to capture anything.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

The stars have not appeared at all. Taking photos directly from the sky, without binoculars, yielded slightly better results:

the black image shows nothing

Some stars appear in the photo I took directly from the sky.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

blurry view of trees on a hill through a binocular loupe

I would not recommend the phone-photo-through-binoculars approach.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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