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Waiting for MY Great Comet…

I recently bought a copy of this beautiful book, and reviewed it on this blog – scroll down a littleways and you’ll find it there…

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As I say in my review, it’s a gem of a book, crammed full of fascinating facts and beautiful pictures… but it’s left me quite frustrated too. Why? Because now I am really, REALLY impatient for my own Great Comet to appear.

Through bad timing I missed a couple of the Great Comets featured in the book. When Comet Bennett shone in the sky before dawn in the Spring of 1970 I was just five years old, so obviously I didn’t see that one. When the next Great Comet came along. in 1976, I was eleven, and although I was “into space” I didn’t have access to monthly astronomy magazines, and The Sky At Night was on waaay too late for me to watch, so I had no idea that while I slept soundly beneath my posters of The Bionic Woman, and wondered why I found “Charlies Angels” and “Star Maidens” (Google or YouTube it) so… interesting… Comet West was spreading its peacock tail across the dawn sky. Missing out on seeing that comet haunts me to this day.

In 1986, in my twenty first year, and with the memories of seeing Challenger blow up on TV still fresh and painful, I followed Halley’s Comet on its long-awaited passage through the sky, but it was hardly “great”, and none of the photos I took of it were good enough to show anyone else. After waiting so long to see it, after reading about it for literally years, it was a crushing disappointment.

Ten years later still, by now considerably older  I finally saw a Great Comet of my own, as Comet Hyakutake came out of nowhere to unfurl its long banner of a tail across the sky. Look at the picture below… just look at the length of that tail, how it stretched almost from Polaris right through the stars of the Plough…

HyakutakeImage: Takanori NOMURA 1996/03/27. Kainan, Wakayama, Japan

I spent many happy nights just looking at Hyakutake, including one memorable night when an observing friend and I headed out into the Lakeland fells on a typically dark and dreary Cumbrian night, optimistically hoping to catch a glimpse of it through a gap in the clouds. When a gap miraculously appeared the comet looked like a violet search-beam against the inky black sky, so long, so ridiculously long that at first Linda and I were sure we were imagining it… but there it was, and it is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in the sky.

A year later, like countless thousands of others, I thrilled to the sight of Comet Hale-Bopp painted on the Cumbrian sky. Now THAT was a comet! It stayed in the sky for ages, months, and it was so big and so bright that you didn’t need to know anything about comets, or astronomy, or the night sky, if you wanted to see it. All you had to do was go outside, look towards the west after sunset and THERE IT WAS, a big misty “V” of blue-white airbrushed on the sky…

Comet Hale-Bopp C/1995 O1 April 1, 1997 Perihelion © Copyright 1997 by Jerry Lodriguss

Comet Hale-Bopp C/1995 O1
April 1, 1997 Perihelion
© Copyright 1997 by Jerry Lodriguss

By now I had a half-decent SLR camera and I spent a small fortune buying film for it to take photographs of Hale-Bopp. Yes, kids, film. No digital cameras in those days; you had to physically go into a shop, pick a small cardboard box off the shelf and then carefully put the roll of film contained inside into your camera, BY HAND. My film of choice was Boots own 400 ASA (yes, ASA!) colour slide film, which worked really well on Hale-Bopp, but if I was feeling really extravagant I would treat myself to a roll of Fuji 1600ASAS slide film, which was as grainy as a snowstorm if you used too long an exposure, but if you treated it with respect could get you nice images. Yes, Hale-Bopp was a thing of beauty, and although I shared it with a lot of others, at observing nights etc, the two of us spent many long and happy hours together just chilling out on our own, with no-one else around.

And then… the Long Drought began.

After Hale-Bopp departed my sky I hoped that it wouldn’t be too long before another Great Comet came along. As the years passed my interest in / passion for astronomy grew, and I started to buy and use the tools of the trade – telescopes, binoculars, computers, computer programs, and eventually one of those fancy, new-fangled digital cameras…

TOSHIBA Exif JPEG

Awww, look at it… the Kodak DC3200… a huge, clunky chunk of grey plastic. I loved that camera, even though it was absolutely useless for taking astrophotographs (not sensitive enough, not capable of taking time exposures). Still that didn’t matter as the universe continued to refuse to send any more Great Comets my way…

Comets did appear, of course; very few years a comet would appear that was just about bright enough to see with the naked eye, but nothing spectacular. Most frustratingly of all, a couple of comets appeared in the northern sky that, crushingly went on to become Great Comets for southern hemisphere observers after rounding the Sun, and all we could do was drool over pictures of them posted online.

Then, in 2012, Comet ISON was discovered, and calculations showed it might… MIGHT… put on a good show for northern hemisphere observers in late 2013. Some people got really carried away by it, and hyped the comet to the skies and beyond, predicting, confidently, that it would be the comet of the century. And thanks to a combination of lazy and sloppy science reporting, and “The end is nigh!” YouTube rantings of the same nutters who had predicted the apocalypse would follow when the “Mayan calendar ran out”, the public were led to believe the astronomical equivalent of a Cirque de Soleil show was going to appear in the heavens…

Well, as we all know things didn’t turn out that way. ISON was torn to pieces as it rounded the Sun, and all that emerged from its glare on the other side was a cloud of dust.

It’s hard to describe just how disappointing that was for people like me who really, really wanted to see a modern Great Comet in the sky. I had so looked forward to seeing it, photographing it, showing it to others. In my mind I had seen myself standing in the ruins of Kendal Castle, alone, before dawn, taking once-in-a-lifetime pictures of its tail glowing above the ancient ruins…

Ah well.

Since ISON there have been a couple more comets in the sky, but so far no Great ones. Last year, Comet Lovejoy – Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy to be precise – charmed us all as it drifted across the sky, taking months to work its way up from beneath Orion to pass beneath the Pleiades and then fade from view near Polaris. That was a very special comet for me because it was the first one I photographed “properly”, i.e. with a camera tracking the night sky. Every comet I had photographed before Q2 had been photographed with just a camera taking short exposures on a static tripod, and I got pretty good results with Lovejoy using that equipment, too…

Jan 19a

January 19th 2015

….but I wanted to do more, and after faffing about thinking about buying one for years, when Lovejoy was in the sky I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a motorised star tracker, an iOptron, and it was like a slap across the face. Now I could take images like the ones I saw online, or in magazines – but really it was too late, I had missed the comet at its best, and although I could take lovely images of Lovejoy looking like a fuzzy ball with a short stubby tail, I had missed the chance to take pictures of it when its tail was stretched out several degrees behind it. I really could kick myself for that. Such a wasted opportunity..!😦

Now I have everything I need for the next Great Comet. I have all the observing gear I need, I have the lenses I need, and know my tracker inside out, so I know that if a bright comet appeared in the sky I could take absolutely kick-ass images of it. But none are due, and reading that book has left me very impatient for my own Great Comet to appear, the one I’ll look back on when I’m 80 and sigh as I remember seeing it spray-painted on the sky. I want a comet to be discovered that will grow to become my generation’s Great Comet. Not just another Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp tho. No, I want one of these

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Donati’s Comet, William Turner of Oxford, 1859

…or one of these

kirch-comet 1680Comet Kirch, 1680

I want a comet that I will spend years – no, decades remembering how it was so bright it took my breath away, and how crowds of people came along to my astronomical society’s special observing nights to be shown it. I want a comet that I filled a dozen memory cards with thousands of photos of it taken with my star tracker, at the castle, from my yard. from up at Shap, from all over the country. I want a comet that will make me late for work because I couldn’t drag myself away from it, I had to have just one more look at it, take one more photo.

mid-dec-ison-morning

I wonder when I’ll get one?

Statistically, it has to happen, right? I mean, all the books and all the experts agree we’re long overdue another showstopper, at least another Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp. It could be discovered any day now, right?

They say that one of the things amateur astronomers need most is patience, and that’s true. But… well… when I go out on a clear night I can’t help looking up, looking out, and thinking…

Come on Universe, get a move on. Bring me my Great Comet.

Soon.

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