Conjunction of Comet and Galaxy


Comet PANSTARRS & M31 (March 31, 2013)

Tonight, April 1, we enjoyed the rare conjunction of a comet with a galaxy.

This is Comet PANSTARRS below the Andromeda Galaxy, a.k.a. M31. The two objects were less than a binocular field apart – 4 degrees – on the sky. But in real space they were separated by millions of light years. The comet was 192 million kilometres from Earth tonight and receding. But that’s a stone’s throw compared to the 2.5 million light year distance of the Andromeda Galaxy. Light was taking a mere 10 minutes to get to us from the comet, but the light from Andromeda was 2.5 million years old.

And yet, the two objects looked similar in brightness and shape to the binocular-aided eye.

I caught the two just above the horizon as they were dipping into haze and trees. The circumstances didn’t make for a technically great photo but with PANSTARRS we’ve all had to shoot despite the conditions and hope for the best.

With worsening weather prospects for the next week I suspect this will be my last look at PANSTARRS for a while.

– Alan, April 1, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Comet Caught in the Trees


Comet PANSTARRS (March 31, 2013)

Tonight’s view of the comet is a picture of Earth and sky – the comet caught in the bare trees of spring.

PANSTARRS is sure a tough comet to shoot! It remains low and skirting the treetops. Tonight, I decided to keep the camera rolling while the comet dropped into the trees. I think it made for a decent enough comet portrait that certainly tells its story.

This is a stack of six 1-minute exposures with the 200mm lens and 1.4x extender for a 280mm f/4 telephoto, on the Canon 60Da and the Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform.

Tomorrow, if skies cooperate, it’ll be a shot of the comet in the same field as the Andromeda Galaxy. I could nicely catch them both in the field of the 7x binoculars tonight. But the photo op nights are this Monday through Wednesday for the comet + galaxy portrait.

– Alan, March 31, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

PANSTARRS Rises into Darkness


Comet PANSTARRS (March 28, 2013)

At last. A view of Comet PANSTARRS in a dark and moonless sky. 

Nearly three weeks after first sighting it, I was able to finally look at and shoot the comet in a fairly dark sky, though with it still embedded in deep twilight. But at least the Moon was out of the way and the sky was dark enough to allow the comet to show off its broad fan-shaped dust tail, set against the stars of Andromeda.

The comet will climb a little higher during the next two moonless weeks as it passes the Andromeda Galaxy on April 2 and 3. However, it’s still very low in the northwest and needs binoculars to sight. You have to wait until the sky is dark to spot it. And hope for no clouds low in the northwest. The comet just dodged some here.

I shot this with a 200mm telephoto for a stack of eight 30-second exposures tracking the stars. The star at left is Delta Andromedae while the one above the comet is Pi Andromedae.

– Alan, March 28, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

PANSTARRS in the Moonlight


Comet PANSTARRS in Moonlight (March 23, 2013)

Pity this comet is so low and in twilight. Tonight, it suffered the additional indignity of moonlight.

This was Comet PANSTARRS from my front yard tonight, March 23, in a view looking above the trees to the comet setting into the northwest in the bright moonlit sky.

It took binoculars to pick it out visually, and a telephoto lens to frame it photographically with enough scale to show some of the subtle tail structure, in what seems like a broad fan-shaped dusty tail.

We can only hope that next week when the Moon is out of the way, and the comet is a little higher, it will show off more of its developing tail in a darker sky.

As it is, to bring out the comet and background stars I overexposed the frames for this stack of four images, then turned down the brightness and cranked up the contrast in processing. It made for a decent enough portrait of Comet PANSTARRS amid the blue sky and faint stars of Andromeda, the constellation it is travelling through for the next two weeks.

– Alan, March 23, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Comet PANSTARRS Over the VLA


Comet PANSTARRS over the VLA (March 17, 2013)

Comet PANSTARRS hovers in the twilight above the many moonlit dishes of the VLA radio telescope.

I shot this earlier this evening, on Sunday, March 17, on an evening trek out to the VLA (Very Large Array) near Socorro, New Mexico. Light from the nearly quarter Moon high in the sky illuminates the landscape and rims the 27 dishes of the VLA, the radio telescope that has starred in many movies over the years. The comet appears in deep twilight, here with the colours accentuated. Fortunately, the array was arranged in its most compact formation – at times the dishes can be spread out over many miles.

For this shot I took two exposures moments apart: one tracked for 25 seconds for the sky and comet to ensure pinpoint stars, and one untracked for 50 seconds for the ground, to ensure sharp ground detail. I combined them in Photoshop. I used the iPad app Photographer’s Ephemeris to seek out the location, on Highway 52, the public highway leading to the entrance road for the VLA. Lights from cars on the main Highway 60 across the high Plains of San Agustin streak at right.

The comet is becoming more photogenic as it climbs higher, despite the waxing Moon. A classic curving dust tail is now obvious in photos, though here I had the advantage of a very clear sky at a high altitude desert site. Viewing condition don’t get any better than this. Still, this comet will bear watching and shooting over the next month, no matter where you are in the northern hemisphere.

– Alan, March 17, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

A Comet and Earthlit Moon Amid the Stars


Comet PANSTARRS & the Moon (March 13, 2013)

This was the scene tonight, March 13, as Comet PANSTARRS set over the mountains in deep twilight, with the waxing Moon hanging overhead.

The small comet sits low in the orange glow of twilight, where the Moon was last night when it was down beside the comet. Tonight, a day later, the Moon appeared much higher in the sky as it waxes toward first quarter Moon in another few days. Tonight it was a crescent with most of the dark part of the lunar disk lit by Earthshine. I took this shot just before the comet set behind the mountains, to get the sky as dark as possible and the exposure longer to bring out some stars in the deepening blue of twilight.

I took this from the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico where about 15 of us are gathered for a week-long star party and dusk to dawn “observathon.”

Indeed, I have to get back outside to continue shooting the Milky Way. It is another stunningly perfect night under New Mexico skies.

– Alan, March 13, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Night of the Comet on a Desert Highway


Comet PANSTARRS & the Moon in Twilight (March 12, 2013)

Sometimes the best sky experiences just happen spontaneously. This was one of them – a night of the comet on a desert highway.

This was the scene at our impromptu roadside star party last night, north of the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico. About a dozen of us, mostly Canadians, gathered at a highway pull off to watch the unforgettable sight of the waxing crescent Moon setting alongside Comet PANSTARRS. You can see the comet to the left of the Moon in the background wide-field image, more or less as it appeared to the naked eye. But the real treat was the view through binoculars and my own small 80mm telescope. The series of closeups with a telephoto lens captures that view.

It was amazing to watch the comet tail and dark side of the Moon setting together as the last bits to disappear behind the mountains. All the while the winter stars and Milky Way were appearing overhead in a perfect sky, all on a mild desert night. A stunning astronomical experience.

Thank you PANSTARRS!

– Alan, March 13, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer