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Under A Comet’s Tail

Astronomy must surely be the most frustrating and potentially heartbreaking hobby of all. Thanks to the laws of Physics we can predict when incredible astronomical events will occur long before they happen, which means we then have to wait months, sometimes years, sometimes even decades until they happen. And then, after all that waiting and anticipation, on the day, or the night, if the sky is cloudy we see nothing and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. I’ve been fascinated by space and the night sky since I was knee high to R2D2, and an active amateur astronomer since my early teens, and honestly I’ve lost count of the number of meteor showers, eclipses and displays of the northern lights I’ve looked forward to seeing, only to have them ruined and stolen from me by a cloudy sky. It’s gutting, it really is, and no matter how old or experienced you are, no matter how philosophical you try to be about it, it’s impossible not to feel absolutely sick as a pig when you know there’s something fantastic going on “up there”, and others are seeing it, but you’re not because if the weather. And I know it’s not very mature, but every time it happens I still glower up at the cloudy sky, shake my head at it in disbelief and curse “You utter b*****d!” at it.

And comets are especially bad for this kind of frustration, because the appearance of a bright comet in the sky is SO rare, SO special, that having one in the sky but being unable to see it because of the weather just turns amateur astronomers into snarling, bitter wrecks of human beings. We check the sky every five minutes every day a naked eye comet is in the sky, convincing ourselves it will clear up later, and then when sunset comes and the sky remains an orange, curdled mess we hen curse it to damnation for not allowing us to see the rare visitor.

And of course now it’s even worse, because thanks to the Internet we can see just what we are missing. In Ye Olden Days we would simply resign ourselves to our fate and forget it for that night, maybe read a book, watch telly or go to the pub or the cinema instead. But now, oh, now if our sky is cloudy we plonk ourselves down in front of our computers, or go online on our phones or tablets and read, on Twitter and Facebook, and in astronomy group message boards, breathlessly excited reports of other skywatchers blessed with better weather. Worse still, we can see and drool enviously over pictures of the comet being taken elsewhere. We torment ourselves.

And Comet Lovejoy has been especially frustrating for many of us Up North here in the UK. For the past couple of months we have read reports of it from the southern hemisphere, and seen photos of it taken from there, which made it clear it was a fascinating, dynamic and lovely comet indeed. It was frustrating not being able to see it too, but you can’t really moan that the Earth itself is in the way, can you? So we just bided our time and waited for it to drift northwards far enough to clear our horizon and start to work its way up into our northern sky…

So when all the weather apps and weather forecasters agreed that it would be a “bitterly cold and frosty night” here in Cumbria last Sunday, members of the astronomical society I belong to drew up plans to head out of town and have a hastily-organised “Comet Watch” at a nearby dark sky spot. And true enough, after a day of clock- and sky-watching, as the Sun set on Sunday there was a lot more clear sky than cloud in the sky, so we headed out of Kendal towards Old Hutton full of confidence and anticipation! However, by the time we got there the cloud had rolled in, covering 2/3 of the sky, but there was still enough clear sky in the west to allow us to glimpse Venus and Mercury snuggling up close in the twilight…

V & M

Soon after I took that photo another EAS member, Simon White, joined Stella, Carol Grayson and myself. Simon is our Society’s “ace astro-photographer” and as he set up his very impressive array of kit the sky did begin to improve. So, with Simon and Carol setting up their gear, Stella and I were free to just get out bearings and look at the sky. Eventually a rip appeared in the east, allowing part of Orion to be seen through the tattered tear…

orion gap f

…but the comet stayed frustratingly hidden from view. By now, despite the cloud cover, it was more than a little chilly, but everyone had dressed appropriately, and with her half a dozen or more layers in there was no way Stella was going to be cold…!

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I believe her new TV series begins soon…

s2b

FINALLY the cloud almost overhead thinned just enough to allow me my first glimpse of the comet…

comet 1st s

…and soon after, with the cloud now well and truly in retreat, I managed to take this shot, hinting at the success of the evening to come…

comet cloud s

As predicted, the cloud DID clear, and we all spent the next four hours enjoying wonderful views, and taking gorgeous pictures of Comet Lovejoy. It was a little hazy at first, but at some point a good gust of wind blew the haze and gunk away and left us with a sky literally glittering with stars. And so we took our photos of the comet, which was looking beautiful in binoculars and through my small 70mm refractor too…

close to star 2

As that simulated view shows it was very close to a star at the start of our night’s viewing, but as the minutes and hours passed the comet gradually moved away from that star. It was fun to watch the distance between the comet and star increasing.

I think I’ll look back on that night as my best “Lovejoy night”. Not just because I had great views of it, or because I took great (I think!) photos of it, but because a) everything went right with the weather, and b) the company, and the good laugh we all had. Astronomy can be a very lonely, very solitary hobby, especially here in the UK. Our weather is so godawful, and so unreliable that organising group events can be a complete waste of time, and after several disappointments in a row many observers decide to shun group events and just take off on their own when a gap in the cloud appears. And I enjoy this “solo astronomy” as much as anyone; it’s very relaxing and very good for the soul to just stand out under a starry sky, on your own, at two in the morning, when all the normal, sensible people are tucked up in bed. But sometimes it’s nice to share an event or an experience with others, and Sunday night was just such a time. We all had a great time together, spreading apart when we needed to do our own thing, and coming together now and then to compare pictures and views, a cup of coffee or a slice of delicious cake. Simon got some fantastic images of Lovejoy (and the currently out-bursting comet Finlay) through his telescope, and Carol got some lovely pics with her camera too. I think Stella just enjoyed being there with everyone, having a laugh. Here she is (left) with Carol…

two s

I took a good couple of hundred photographs on Sunday night, and Carol and Simon were clicking away like crazy too. But at one point I made Carol and Simon stop taking photographs, step away from their camera and telescope, and join me and Stella at my little refractor so everyone could actually LOOK at Lovejoy. I think it is very important to do do this, and always try to insist people I’m with at such an event take a few minutes to just LOOK. It’s so easy to get caught up in the photography that you forget to actually look, and when you get home it hits you that you didn’t actually see the thing you were photographing, you only saw your photos of it, glowing on the back of your camera. That’s why I told Simon and Carol to come over to my humble little telescope and made them look into its eyepiece and LOOK at Lovejoy. It was a serenely beautiful sight, too – a big, grey puffball of light slowly and silently edging away from a crooked line of stars, and if you used averted vision the tail became visible too. It looked a lot like this, in fact…

eyepiece

By ten thirty pm, five hours after our arrival, the comet was swinging around and down into an area of light pollution, so Carol, Stella and I packed up and headed home, leaving Simon on his own, happily taking more of his brilliant photographs. When we got back Stella had to unpack herself before she could drink a cup of tea…

s1

…and I started working on my pictures, but knowing I had to be up for work very early the next day I only processed a couple. I’ve now had a chance to work on more of them, so here they are, in no particular order. Really, really pleased with them… 🙂

best 2

best 1

best 3

Lovejoy Jan 18 2015

wide 1

tail2bf

It was a brilliant night with four sky-watchers enjoying a starry sky, and each other’s company, standing beneath a comet’s glowing tail.

What more could you want? 🙂

 

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