Thursday, March 14, 2013

Comet Sense

(Click any picture to enlarge)

  You know, they say it's about the journey, not the destination. Well, I had both on Tuesday night when I drove up to Saddleback Butte State Park to go comet hunting. Specifically, I was looking for comet Pan-STARRS, which was supposed to be out in full force.
  The conditions could not have been better. Under clear skies and wonderfully warm temperatures, I roared across the open desert in my Jeep- windows down, tunes cranked up. It's always fun getting to go somewhere you've never been before, even if it's as close as 40 minutes away.
  A lot of the high desert terrain out here is almost a duplicate of landscapes I am used to from my home state of New Mexico, with the exception of the many Joshua Trees. That made things no less beautiful, though, as the sun began to set and bathe everything in gold and orange tones.
  I arrived at my destination just before 7:00, pulling off 170th street into the soft sand (any excuse to go off-road, right?). There's nothing out in that area but an occasional house and a lot of dirt. A short, wavy road took me up the hill to the ruins of an old church, where I took this photo.

  For the next few minutes, I wandered around the ruin, shooting the effects of the glorious sunset. It felt great to just be out in nature.

  Shortly after, my friend Alan showed up, and we started picking our spots to set up for the big event. Then, we waited. And waited. And waited some more. According to charts we had looked at earlier in the day, there was supposed to be a thin crescent moon out, and Pan-STARRS would be visible to the immediate left.

  There was no moon, no comet. Only colorfully darkening skies.

  About ten minutes later, I spotted the very faint sliver of the moon, and pointed it out to Alan. We both manned our lenses, but there was still no sign of the comet. "It is still pretty light out," Alan remarked. I began to wonder exactly how visible this comet was going to be. Several minutes later, with nothing visible, I decided to shoot a long exposure of the area around the moon in hopes that it would reveal something the human eye wasn't able to yet detect. My gamble paid off. A little further to the left than expected, I spied the first hint of a smudgy ball in the sky, and its tiny tail.
  "I found it!" I cried. "There it is!" Alan came over, and I showed him the replay on my camera's LCD screen. Neither of us expected the comet to be that far left. So, as the skies darkened, and visibility improved, we shot picture after picture.
  Having little experience with night-shooting, I shot with a variety of settings, trying my best to cut down the amount of noise in my long exposures. Here's one of the best shots I took:

  As I said, I took a lot more, but they are all variations of this shot. Even at full resolution, the comet is really just a smudgy white blob, as it would be with any imaging device, so I didn't include any close-ups. It was still a very interesting and amazing smudgy blob, though, and made for a fantastic evening under the stars.

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