Zodiacal Light and the Phantom Comet


Zodiacal Light at Dawn from New Mexico (Dec 2013)

The Zodiacal Light shines bright in the New Mexico dawn, near where the ill-fated Comet ISON would have been.

This was the dawn sky on the morning of December 6, 2013 looking east from our observing site at the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico.

The zodiacal light was bright pre-dawn extending up from the horizon to high overhead. This glow is from sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system.

Adding to that cloud of dust is presumably the remains of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) – this image includes the position where ISON would have appeared had it survived, with its head left of centre, just left of the zodiacal light, and just above the mountain ridge. Its tail would have arched up and to the left, had it grown an extensive dust tail as was hoped.

As it is, there is a comet in the field – Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) is a tiny blue blip at far left, a minor consolation prize for missing ISON. Pity ISON didn’t work out, as we would have had two photogenic and naked eye comets in the dawn sky together.

The field also contains two planets: Mars in Leo above and right of centre, and Saturn in Libra just coming up over the mountains in the middle of the zodiacal light. Both lie in the zodiacal light because the light follows the ecliptic – i.e. the plane of the solar system and the orbits of the planets.

– Alan, December 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Enjoying Lovejoy, the Consolation Comet


Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013)

Comet Lovejoy shines above the New Mexico desert in the pre-dawn sky. 

We came here for Comet ISON but have had to settle for Comet Lovejoy, a decent enough comet in the morning sky, but not the spectacle we had hoped for.

This was Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) as it appeared this morning, December 6, under very good New Mexico skies marred only by some scattered clouds and patches of airglow. The main image is a 50mm lens shot of the wide scene looking east.

The comet was visible to the naked eye, but just barely as a fuzzy star. It took the long exposure photos to bring out its blue ion tail, stretching 6° to 10° across the sky and pointed down toward the sunrise point in the east.

Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013) 135mm

I took the close-up shot above with a 135mm telephoto lens showing the bright head and faint ion tail. The tail here measures 6° long, though a deeper exposure might have picked up more, up to 10° long. But I think reports of seeing a tail up to 5° long with the naked eye are wishful seeing. The comet and tail are not that obvious, and we are in superb skies.

Still, Lovejoy makes a fine comet consolation prize, substituting for the ill-fated Comet ISON. It was a beautiful morning to enjoy Lovejoy in the quiet and star-filled New Mexico dawn.

– Alan, December 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Comet Lovejoy Beside the Big Dipper


Comet Lovejoy & Big Dipper (Nov 27, 2013)

The handle of the Big Dipper seems to point down to Comet Lovejoy, low in the northern sky.

While the astronomy world waits and watches as Comet ISON rounds the Sun in the next day, another comet is appearing in the evening sky.

This is Comet Lovejoy, aka C/2013 R1, captured in a set of exposures I took about 6:30 pm on Wednesday evening, November 27, when the comet shone off the handle of the Big Dipper. It was not visible to the naked eye but was easy in binoculars. The photo shows Comet Lovejoy as cyan-tinted star at left with a spiky tail pointed away from the Sun.

From my latitude of 51° N Comet Lovejoy sits far enough north to be circumpolar, though just barely. However, as it heads south it will become just a morning sky object, especially for those at more southerly latitudes. In the coming days it will join Comet ISON (or what’s left of it) in the December dawn.

– Alan, November 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Sundiving Comet ISON – A Last Look


Comet ISON C/2012 S1 (Nov 21, 2013)

Comet ISON performs its dive toward the Sun, caught in the morning twilight.

This was the infamous and much-hyped Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) as it appeared this morning, November 21, 2013, a week before it performs its hairpin turn around the Sun.

The comet was easy to see in binoculars, though the camera picks up a bit more of its faint tail. ISON was much more photogenic a week ago when it was higher in a darker and moonless sky. But this morning I had to contend with bright moonlight from a waning Moon and the brightening dawn. The inset shows a blow up of just the comet.

ISON is dropping rapidly toward the Sun, making this perhaps the last sighting I’ll have of it until it reappears – we hope! – from behind the Sun in early December. If it survives its perihelion passage it might blossom into brilliance … or fade into obscurity. No one knows.

In the photo above, you can see Mercury at left, shining much brighter than ISON. It was brilliant as it rose into the southeast sky, with the elusive planet now about as well-placed as it gets as a “morning star” for us living at northern latitudes.

Comet Lovejoy C/2013 R1 (Nov 21, 2013)

This morning I was able to shoot not one but two comets.

About half an hour before ISON hove into view I aimed the camera up almost overhead toward Ursa Major, to capture Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) as a bright cyan fuzzball with a short tail. Again, the photo brings out the tail – to the eye the comet was obvious in binoculars but appeared as just a fuzzy star.

I took both shots with the same gear: a 135mm telephoto lens on the Canon 5D MkII on an iOptron SkyTracker. The Lovejoy shot is a stack of 5 x 75 second exposures. The ISON shot is a 4-second exposure, with the colours and contrast boosted for prettiness.

This is certainly proving to be a year of comets. It would be nice if just one of them got really bright!

– Alan, November 21, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer