Last weekend I tried to see the famous green comet in the night sky, far from the city.
It was much harder than I expected, even with advice from a pro, because I didn’t plan ahead enough.
The moon shone brighter than most 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 whirl past Earth this month. I tried to become one of them, but it was much harder than I 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 returned for the first time since the Ice Age 50,000 years ago.
I went camping in Pinnacles National Park last weekend, and I thought: I’m going to try to spot the rare celestial visitor myself.
Pinnacles isn’t an official sanctuary for dark skies, but it’s hours from the major cities of San Jose and San Francisco, and you can usually see plenty of stars between the 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 contacted Dan Bartlett, an astrophotographer living in California, for advice. He has taken beautiful pictures of the comet, such as this one:
I knew I wouldn’t see anything so clear. He set up a telescope in the mountains to get those views. But I wanted to get as close as possible without spending a lot of money.
“It will be quite large and almost a quarter of the field in your binoculars,” Bartlett told me in an email.
If that was the case, I thought I couldn’t miss it.
He said binoculars were essential, so I stopped by REI to get some. Following his advice and some astronomy blogs I read online, I chose a $120 pair labeled 8 x 42 – the first number indicates their magnification power and the second measures the diameter of the objective lenses in millimeters.
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be enough to spot the comet. I hoped to catch at least a grainy green glow in the night sky, but that failed completely.
Finding fuzzy objects in the sky is harder than I thought. It’s not something to do at the last minute, with little planning and no experience.
2 things I did right: Dressed for the weather and downloaded a zodiac sign app
At least I can congratulate myself for staying warm. The forecast showed it would drop to 40 degrees Fahrenheit at Pinnacles, and I’m cold, so I packed lots of layers and a warm hat, socks, and a scarf.
I also picked up foot warmers and a rechargeable hand warmer that I got for Christmas.
I also foresaw another problem that could have sent me to my tent early: I have no experience locating celestial bodies other than the Moon and the Big Dipper. I would need to find Mars and the star Capella to determine the right area to look for the comet.
Bartlett said Sky Safari is hands down the “best mobile phone app”. So I paid $4.99 to download it. The app used GPS to tag 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 longer to scan the sky on my own. Without Sky Safari I probably wouldn’t have been able to spot Capella at all.
Mistake No. 1: Choosing 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 up until nearly 7 a.m. on Friday night. So I might as well watch the comet at a reasonable hour, Bartlett told me.
That seemed like great news to me, since I’m not a morning person and I especially hate waking up before the sun comes up. But I had better wake up early for a moonless dawn.
“The moon will be extremely bright and disruptive. We can’t get around this,” Bartlett said. “It’s like you decided to watch the comet from a medium-sized city.”
He was more right than I realized.
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 to 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 readjust them.
Thin wisps of cloud floating across the sky probably made matters worse.
Mistake No. 2: Not rehearsing before I lost internet
Comet ZTF should be 5 degrees north of the star Capella, which you can find by first identifying Mars. It was easy to locate Capella and face north. But what does 5 degrees mean?
I realized too late that I couldn’t remember and that I hadn’t written it down. I had no service at Pinnacles so couldn’t google it. I knew the general area where the comet should be, but not how big or small that area was. So I scanned far and wide around Capella, hoping to hit the jackpot.
I saw many satellites and planes, but no comet.
One of the people who camped with me said she had heard that the comet would be between the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper. That was a huge space and I couldn’t check her without internet, but it matched what Bartlett had told me.
That helped me pinpoint what the problem might be: The space between Big Dipper and Capella went right through a large halo of light that circled the moon. I couldn’t see any stars in that bright ring.
As the night progressed, I began to lose hope. At one point, my camping companions pointed out a plane skimming past the moon, leaving a trail of condensation. They joked it was the comet.
I took a photo so at least I had something to show for my efforts. Don’t let that green spot in the photo excite you – it’s just a glitch in my phone’s camera.
Mistake #3: Thinking I can take pictures with my phone through my binoculars
Even without a comet, I enjoyed how much brighter and more resolved the stars appeared through my binoculars. I wanted to share the opinion and I had seen reviews of the binoculars online where people took pictures by holding their phone’s camera to the lens.
I tried to do the same but all the pictures came out like this:
The stars didn’t show up at all. Taking photos directly from the air – no binoculars – yielded slightly better results:
If I had seen the green comet, I would never have been able to capture it on my iPhone X.
The next morning, in the sunlight, I tried the technique again with a clearer subject: trees on a hill. It still didn’t work.
After completely botching my attempt at amateur astronomy, I have even more respect for the planning, calculation and patience that went into it.
Who knows, maybe I looked straight at the green comet and didn’t recognize it because it was too faint. But the next time I go looking for celestial bodies, I’ll be much more prepared. If possible, I’ll bring someone who knows what he’s doing.
Read the original article on Business Insider