Friday, March 15, 2013

Comet Pan-STARRS comes to town

Comet Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) is the first of two comets this year (the other is Comet ISON that will be visible this November around Thanksgiving) that can be seen without binoculars or telescopes. Up until last week it had been visible in the southern hemisphere. Around the time it made its closest approach to the sun on 10 March it became visible to us in the northern hemisphere in evening twilight. But because of where it was in the sky relative to the sun it wouldn't become visible until 30 minutes after sunset.

12 and 13 March would be the best days to see it from Los Angeles. I went to Point Fermin in San Pedro on the evening of the10th to see if I could find it, but I couldn't -- it was lost in the glare of the setting sun. The plan for the 12th was to go to a friend's place on Dockweiler Beach (which is just south of LAX airport) and watch it from there because you needed an unobstructed view to the west. Unfortunately, although the weather has been good for the past several days and the skies clear, the afternoon of the 12th had fog appear in Santa Monica Bay and begin to move onshore. So much for watching the comet from the beach.

The peninsula south of me, which is topped by a hill, would be high enough above the clouds to see the comet. But my wife pointed out that there were a couple of look-outs lower down along the road that follows the peninsula's coastline that were worth checking, too. I decided that if the look-outs were covered in clouds then I would drive up the hill to a park near the top. When I drove by both look-outs the fog had gotten thick and crossed the coastline, so both locations were out.

I made it to the hilltop park with a few minutes to spare before sunset. Already there was a small crowd of comet-watchers lined up along the western edge of the park with their cameras, telescopes, and binoculars:

I set up at the very end of this grassy area so I wouldn't bother the more-experienced folks. I carried my 18-35mm zoom and my 70-200mm zoom. Using the 18-35mm this was my view to the west:

I switched to the 70-200mm. After I watched the sun set beneath a solid layer of low clouds above the Pacific Ocean, I just caught a glimpse of a very young crescent moon just a few hours old:

But the comet was not visible -- at least not to the naked eye.

About 35 minutes or so after sunset I finally saw it about using my wide-field binoculars. It was about three or four lunar diameters to the left of the moon:

It's the tiny white smudge just to the left of center in the photo. Its tail is pointing up.

I still hadn't seen it with my naked eyes; the binoculars were the best way to spot it. And even then it was best to avert your eyes from it in order to find it.

Once I was able to track it I adjusted some camera settings back-and-forth seeing what I could get:

I decided to zoom out to 70mm to get a sense of context of how the moon and comet appeared in the sky with the town of Rancho Palos Verdes in the foreground:

I made an adjustment or two as the pair of sky objects sank towards the fog that covered the ocean:

It was fortunate that I had a fast lens with me because it allowed enough light in to keep my exposures relatively short, and so minimized the chance of smearing the comet's image in the photo. I don't have a motorized mount to let me track an object across the sky.

I decided to take one last context shot before the comet and the moon set:

As both objects got closer to the fog bank, they turned increasingly rusty in color:

Just before both disappeared I watched the moon's image diffract into odd shapes:

Then, it was over, and I went home.

The following night I returned to the park, and brought my 300mm lens along with the 70-200mm. This time it took me longer to find it because the comet had moved some distance from the moon and so was harder to find. I didn't take quite as many pictures this time; the moon and comet being so close together was the thing to see. But this is what the comet looked in my 300mm:

But seeing it as the only object in the picture doesn't give you a sense of context. I switched back to my 70-200mm and shot a vertical format picture, then converted it to black-and-white using Lightroom:

It was interesting to see how much more stuff you can see in the b&w photo.

Comet Pan-STARRS is moving to the northwest and higher in the sky as it recedes from the sun. The past couple of days there have been high clouds to the west at sunset, so it hasn't been possible to photograph it. But I'm happy with what I have. Now I wait until Thanksgiving when Comet ISON arrives. It's going to be a bright one, if it stays true to predictions.


  1. Very cool opportunity. Love the shots where you are above the clouds. Having just moved out to a rural area, I think I will start taking pics of the night sky, since there is very little light pollution out here.

    1. lucky you. i hadn't taken pictures of the night sky atop the hill before, so seeing is much better up there than at my house. still, i have an idea of where else to go when comet ison arrives. it's supposed to be darker than the hill, and it's closer than having to drive out to the desert where the light pollution is less.

  2. Thanks for sharing Steve.
    That way I can live the experience through you.
    Love the results and hope you can catch ISON also.

    1. i haven't looked at a finder chart for ison yet, but you really ought to try taking pictures just for the fun of it. i am sometimes very pleasantly surprised by what i get, noob that i am.