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

woman with curly hair with blue hat taking selfie smiling in front of tent

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

  • 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.

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 contacted Dan Bartlett, an astrophotographer living in California, for advice. He has taken beautiful pictures of the comet, such as this one:

green comet with diffuse white skirt and long white tail

Comet ZTF on January 28, 2023.Dan Bartlett

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.

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

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

“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.

hand holding black box with binoculars in shop

My fresh new binoculars at REI.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

orange pack of foot warmers on wood background next to hand with black and white electronic hand warmer

I refuse to get cold feet!Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

phone screenshot shows app projecting constellations in the night sky

A screenshot from the app showing me where to find Mars and Capella.Air safari

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.”

full moon snow moon December

The moon wasn’t completely full, as in this photo of Canada’s Lake Louise, but it came pretty close.Andy Clark/REUTERS

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.


Partly cloudy weather may have also contributed to thwarting my efforts to spot Comet ZTF.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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.

woman lying flat on the floor on a backpack with a jacket, green pants and a headlamp looking up through binoculars

I stared at the stars from the ground while stretching my neck too much, and posed next to the campfire for this shot.Thanks to Arden Wells

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.

black night sky with glowing moon and a trail of airplane condensation streaking past

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

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

woman with headlamp and thick coat holding the phone to the binoculars

I tried to emulate a photo strategy I saw in the binoculars reviews, and it didn’t work.Thanks to Arden Wells

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:

black image shows nothing

My phone couldn’t capture anything through the binoculars.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

The stars didn’t show up at all. Taking photos directly from the air – no binoculars – yielded slightly better results:

black image shows nothing

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

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.

blurred view of trees on a hill through binoculars

I wouldn’t recommend the phone-picture-through-binoculars approach.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

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

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