I tried to see the famous green comet in the night sky, far from the city, last weekend.
It was much more difficult than expected, even with the advice of a pro, because I hadn’t anticipated enough.
The moon eclipsed most stars, and I couldn’t locate the faint comet, even with binoculars.
Only a tiny fraction of the human population will ever see the green comet howl past Earth this month. I tried to become one of them, but it was much more difficult than expected.
I’ve heard (and written) a lot of hype about this comet, called C/2022 E3 (ZTF), or Comet ZTF for short. The ball of frozen gas and dust has returned for the first time since the Ice Age 50,000 years ago.
I was already going camping at Pinnacles National Park last weekend and thought I’d try to spot the rare celestial visitor myself.
Pinnacles isn’t an official Dark Sky Sanctuary, but it’s several hours from the major 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 had never tried to locate a particular object in the night sky before, so I contacted Dan Bartlett, an astrophotographer who lives in California, for his advice. He took beautiful photos of the comet, like this one:
I knew I wouldn’t see anything so clear. He set up a telescope in the mountains to get these views. But I wanted to get as close to it as possible without spending a ton of money.
“It’ll be pretty big, and almost a quarter of the field in your binoculars,” Bartlett told me in an email.
If so, I thought I couldn’t miss it.
He said binoculars were essential, so I stopped by REI to buy a pair. According to his advice and some astronomy blogs I read online, I picked a $120 pair labeled 8 x 42 – the first number indicating their magnification power and the second measuring the diameter of the objective lenses in millimeters.
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be enough to spot the comet. I was hoping that I would catch 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 be done at the last minute, with little planning and no experience.
2 things I did well: dress for the weather and download a constellation app
I can at least congratulate myself on having stayed warm. The forecast showed it would drop as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit at Pinnacles, and I’m cold, so I packed lots of layers and a warm hat, socks, and scarf.
I also took foot warmers and a rechargeable hand warmer that I got for Christmas.
I also foresaw another problem that might have sent me to my tent sooner: I have no experience in locating celestial objects other than the moon and the Big Dipper. I would need to find Mars and the star Capella in order to identify the correct area to search for the comet.
Bartlett said Sky Safari was “hands down the best mobile app”. 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 dead giveaway, but it would have taken me longer to scan the sky on my own. I probably wouldn’t have been able to spot Capella without Sky Safari.
Mistake #1: Choosing a night when the moon is bright
I thought I would have to wake up before dawn to avoid the moon, but it turned out that the moon would be in the sky Friday night until almost 7 a.m. So might as well see the comet at a reasonable hour, Bartlett told me.
This seemed like great news, since I’m not a morning person and I particularly hate waking up before the sun. But I would have done better to wake up early for a moonless dawn.
“The moon will be extremely bright and annoying. There’s no getting around that,” Bartlett said. “It’s like deciding 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 like I hadn’t left town. Even when I kept the moon at my back and gave my eyes 15 minutes to adjust, I didn’t see much. Every time I looked at the moon it reset my eyes and I had to let them adjust again.
Thin streaks of clouds floating in the sky likely made the situation worse.
Mistake #2: Not Repeating Before Losing Internet
Comet ZTF was supposed to be 5 degrees north of the star Capella, which you can find by first identifying Mars. Locating Capella and looking north was easy. But what does 5 degrees mean?
I realized too late that I didn’t remember it and hadn’t written it down. I had no service at Pinnacles so I couldn’t google it. I knew the general area where the comet was supposed to be, but I didn’t know the size or size of that area. So I scanned around Capella from afar, hoping I’d hit the jackpot.
I saw lots of satellites and planes, but no comets.
One of the people camping with me mentioned that she had heard the comet would be between Ursa Minor and Ursa Major. It was a huge space, and I couldn’t check it out without the internet, but it matched what Bartlett had told me.
This helped me identify what might be wrong: the space between Ursa Major and Capella passed through a large halo of light circling the moon. I couldn’t see any stars in this ring of light.
As the night progressed, I began to lose hope. At one point, my camping buddies reported an airplane passing in front of the moon, leaving a contrail in its wake. They joked that it was the comet.
I took a photo to at least have something to show for my efforts. Don’t let that green speck in the photo get you excited – it’s just a glitch in my phone’s camera.
Mistake #3: Thinking I could take pictures with my phone through my binoculars
Even without a comet, I appreciated how the stars appeared clearer and better resolved through my binoculars. I wanted to share the view and had seen reviews of binoculars online where people were taking pictures by holding their phone camera up to the lens.
I tried to do the same, but all images came out like this:
The stars did not appear at all. Shooting directly from the sky – without binoculars – gave slightly better results:
If I had spotted the green comet, I would never have been able to capture it on my iPhone X.
The next morning, in the sun, I tried the technique again with a lighter subject: trees on the side of a hill. It still didn’t work.
Having totally fumbled my attempt at amateur astronomy, I have even more respect for the planning, calculation, and patience associated with it.
Who knows, maybe I looked at the green comet and didn’t recognize it because it was too faint. But the next time I go looking for celestial objects, I will do a lot more preparation. If I can, I’ll bring someone who knows what they’re doing.
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