Nights of the Comet

 Back in 2013, on the nights of March 12 and 13, my wife and I went looking for a comet.  Specifically, we wanted to see the comet Pan-STARRS.  Comet Pan-STARRS was named after the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, where it was discovered back in 2011 on its plunge out of the Oort Cloud.  In March of 2013, Comet Pan-STARRS made what scientists believe was its first visit to the inner solar system

            It was the first of what was expected to be two good comets that year; the second would come in December: Comet ISON which turned out to be less interesting than we’d hoped.  Comets are unpredictable and fickle things. It’s impossible to predict with any certainty exactly what they’ll actually be like.  Some, like Hale-Bop in 1997 and Hyakutake in 1996 mostly lived up to their hype.  Many are disappointments, like Halley’s in 1986.  Others, become unexpectedly spectacular, like the 2005 Comet Machholz which was unremarkable and not even visible to the naked eye until it suddenly brightened into a vast glowing ball on its way back out into the dark regions of the solar system, becoming plainly visible to the naked eye when it was near the orbit of Mars.

            So, my wife and I were looking forward to seeing comet PanSTARRS after it had made its closest approach to the sun on March 10.  The time right after sunset on March 12 was supposed to be when we’d have the best chance of seeing it, about five degrees to the left of the 28 hour-old moon.  My wife had me go outside first to see if it was even visible and worth the trek outdoors.  I drove to a nearby field that gave me a clear view of the sky down to the horizon.

At first, I couldn’t see anything except the brightly shining Jupiter.  But then, after a few minutes, I spotted the barely visible moon: a sliver of a crescent like a lopsided smile.  Holding my fist out at arm’s length, I looked just to the left of my fist.

And there it was: Comet PanSTARRS, a fuzzy patch like a cotton ball, its glowing tail trailing up into the sky away from the sunset.  I hurried back home and told my wife.  We grabbed my binoculars and headed out to the parking lot of our church, where it would be darker, without so many lights from town.

When we got there, our friend Kathy Newman was already there—we’d told her about the comet the Sunday before at church.  She’s a photographer, so she was out there with her camera and had already gotten a few excellent images of the crescent moon with the comet.

Once we knew exactly where to look, the comet was obvious.  We watched the comet until it finally set beneath the horizon, perhaps an hour past sunset.

The next night, March 13, we attempted to see the comet PanSTARRS again. This time, along with my binoculars, I brought my telescope with me.  My telescope is very small.  It’s a Meade 3 ½ inch Maksutov-Cassegrain with a field tripod and equatorial mount with motor drive.  What it lacks in resolution, it makes up for in being very easy to transport anywhere. That’s an important consideration when one lives in a brightly lighted city, since to do any good observing of the sky, one must travel some distance to escape its glare.    However, we were unsuccessful the second night: we never got to see the comet. By the time we arrived at our viewing location, the comet had sunk beneath the horizon. 

But the evening was not a total loss.  Since I had the telescope with me, we went ahead and set it up and took a look at the thin crescent moon.  It was a beautiful sight.  About then, one of my wife’s teacher colleagues and her family had joined us, hoping to see the comet.  My wife had told her about what we’d seen the night before and had informed her that we were going to make a second attempt with a telescope.  But they enjoyed looking at the magnified crescent moon.  After staring at the moon for a while, I decided to swing the scope toward Jupiter.

What was a star-like object to the naked eye became a small, yellowish banded disk through the telescope.  And four tiny specks, like brilliant diamonds, lay strung out in a line on either side of Jupiter:  the four largest moons of Jupiter, three on one side (Calisto, Europa and Io) and one on the other (Ganymede).  They are called the Galilean satellites, since they were all discovered by Galileo Galilee in the seventeenth century. 

It was the first time I’d ever seen all four of Jupiter’s main moons at the same time.  The most I’d seen before then had been three; usually one or more were either behind or in front of Jupiter and invisible to me.