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Seize the moment…

Can there be a more frustrating astronomical object to observe than a comet? It seems, honestly, as if they attract cloud during the dark period of the lunar month, and only decide to throw back their cloudy duvet and flaunt themselves when the Moon is Full again. This has happened to me again and again, so many times I’ve lost count. And Comet Lovejoy is doing it too. When the Moon was Full a week or so ago we had clear night after clear night, but the brilliance of the Moon washed out the comet’s feathery tail (for amateur observers at least), and now the Moon is out of the way we have one cloudy night after another, and seeing the comet means grabbing brief views through any gap that appears, and being *prepared* to do that.

So, yesterday evening I was due to give one of my illustrated astronomy talks to a local Beaver Scouts group, to help them get their “Stargazers” badge. I do this a lot, it’s great fun and gets kids looking up at and appreciating the night sky. This talk was at a hall in the pretty Lakeland village of Hawkshead, just outside Ambleside, basically “out in the country”, and as my increasingly-trusted BBC Weather app assured me there was a very good chance of a clear spell immediately after the talk I took a chance and loaded the camera and its tripod into the car beside my laptop and projector. Just in case. I figured that as we were going to be out in the middle of nowhere, if there was a gap in the clouds a very starry, light pollution free sky would present itself, and if that gap happened to drift over the comet I’d be in business…

Anyway, the talk went really well, great group of kids, and as we came out of the hall – stars! Stars everywhere! A clear sky! So whoosh, out of town to find a clearing amongst the trees, and a place to park off the road, and out of the car to set up the camera in record time… Lined up my “in focus” scratches on the lens (saves a LOT of time faffing about, that, glad I did it), swung the camera up to where the Hyades and Pleiades clusters were shining brightly… and..



Wow, look at that.. that’s one frame right out of the camera, no processing, and you can see the tail! Compare that to a single unprocessed frame taken up at Shap the night before and you can see what a huge difference being under a genuinely dark sky with not a hint of high cloud makes…


And yes, the comet was *very* obvious to the naked eye as a misty patch off to the right of the Hyades, a very distinctive blur, if that makes sense. Through binoculars? Very pretty, and moving the binoculars around brought the tail into view too. It wasn’t really there when you looked right at it, but looking off to the side – a trick/technique astronomers use all the time – brought it into clearer view.

But cloud was coming in on all sides, the gap was closing up, so I just fired off as many shots as I could before the comet was covered up. Ten minutes after we arrived, the sky was totally cloudy again, all trace of the comet erased… but I had pictures in my camera I just *knew* had the potential to be turned, with a bit of work, into something a bit special…

I was right. After stacking the images, and processing them with my various software packages (I use about half a dozen) some really nice portraits of Comet Lovejoy appeared. Here they are, hope you like them! And again, these were all taken with just a DSLR on a tripod, they’re not tracked shots, just short exposures on high settings.

LJ Jan 13 1

LJ Jan 13 2

LJ Jan 13 3

LJ Jan 13 4 b

LJ Jan 13 5 bw

LJ Jan 13 5

…and my best one is this… I’m SO pleased with the lovely subtle colours in the tail…!
LJ Jan 13 6

Just goes go show you don’t need lots of sophisticated gear to take a pretty comet picture!

…having said that, I am now *so* determined to buy an iOptron tracker (or similar) it’s definitely going to happen, probably up at the Kielder star camp next month.

Hope we have another gap in the clouds soon, cos that tail is really developing nicely now… 🙂


3 Responses

  1. Hi. I enjoy your comment and photies. Iv only seen the Comet twice, a few weeks ago when the moon was just about full hampering viewing conditions. I have spotted it again a week later, but as you mentioned, in this country when there is an astronomical event going on, were usually clouded out. Annoying. I haven’t seen the comet for over a week now here in Warrington.

  2. Excellent! Here’s to clear skies next month……….?

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