A Collection of Comets

Started Feb 11, 2015 | Discussions thread
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RustierOne Veteran Member • Posts: 4,401
A Collection of Comets

Many of us have had the thrilling experience of photographing our current comet - Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2). I thought it would be interesting to assemble a collection of comets that I have seen over the years. Several of these I’ve been able to photograph - others are only pleasant memories. I was expecting to find maybe a dozen comets in my observing log. But to my surprise there were 23. The more spectacular ones earned the name “Great Comet” - that is a comet that becomes exceptionally bright, noticed by casual observers who are not actively looking for it, and that becomes well known outside the astronomical community. My photos range in quality from atrocious to good. So I'll get these earliest bad ones out of the way first. Then you can seen how things improved over the years, particularly in the digital age. Here are the comets I’ve seen and photographed:

  1. Arend-Roland (C/1956 R1) - I remember seeing this “Great Comet” at the age of 11 in the spring of 1957, visible in the west after sunset using my neighbor’s 7X50 binoculars. Even with the unaided eye it was quite prominent . No photographs of this one.
  2. Ikeya-Seki (1967n) - This is not the same Ikeya-Seki which was a spectacular Sun-grazing Great Comet. Seen through Humboldt State College's Cave Optical 12-inch Dall-Kirkham telescope this comet showed a stellar nucleus in the coma and a suggestion of a short tail. The photo below shows not only an incorrect tracking rate, but also severe 11-minute periodic error. Photo specifics: 12-inch, 4877 mm, f/16, Panatomic-X film (ASA 32, 2 X 3 inch sheet film), 20-minute exposure. The comet is revealed by its trail being skewed compared to that of the stars.

    Comet Ikeya-Seki (1967n)

  3. Bennet (C1969 Y1) - Discovered on December 28, 1969 while still almost two AUs from the Sun. It reached perihelion on March 20, passing closest to Earth on March 26, 1970. As it receded its brightness peaked at magnitude 0. I remember seeing this Great Comet while in the US Army, marching to breakfast one cold March morning before dawn. My location was Huntsville, Alabama, near Marshall Spaceflight Center.
  4. Kohoutek - Comet Kohoutec, discovered by Luboš Kohoutek, is somewhat famous for being a disappointment, even though it reached a brightness of -3 magnitude. It just didn't live up to the media's hype of being the "comet of the century". But it was quite the sight both with unaided eye and telescope. After getting out of the army I visited the desert southwest to view this comet, toting my home-made 8-inch reflector in the back seat of my little Fiat 128. During a visit to Kit Peak I asked one of the security men if I could stay up on the mountain after dark. He said that was not allowed. Being a brash youngster I asked how I could get permission to stay. He said, with an air of finality, that only the director of the Kit Peak Observatory could authorize my staying. I asked if I could see him, and to my surprise he took me to the director's office. After a nice visit, the director kindly gave permission to stay, despite my wild appearance. Then I was treated to a nice behind-the-scenes tour of the observatory by the security person, seeing some things not normally seen by visitors.

    Russ with his home-made 8-inch reflector on Kit Peak, Arizona, January 10, 1974, elevation ~6700 ft. (2040 meters)

    After dark the comet viewed through the telescope revealed a 3° degree tail. The comet's nucleus could be seen rapidly moving past the background stars. With the unaided eye, the tail was at least 10°. This is the best of my tripod mounted photos of Comet Kohoutek:

    Comet Kohoutek - Mamiya-Sekor 55mm f/1.4 @ f/2.8, ~45 sec. exposure with GAF 500 Slide Film

  5. Kobayashi-Berger-Milon - (1975h) While not an exceptionally bright comet, when viewed with 7 X 50 binoculars it did sport a nice 4 degree tail. Near the end of July, 1975 it passed between the galaxy M101 and the double star Alcor/Mizar in Ursa Major's handle. The following photo show a bright meteor in Earth's atmosphere, the comet in the solar system, the stars of our Milky Way galaxy and the galaxy M101 (upper left) in the distant background. That's quite a depth of field!

    Comet Kobayashi-Berger-Milon - Pentax 200mm f/4.0, 40-minute exposure in Tri-X 400 ASA

    The next two images show the comet passing by Alcor/Mizar on successive nights. The specifics are: Pentax 200mm f/4.0, 30-minute exposures on Tri-X:

    Comet Kobayashi-Berger-Milon, with Alcor/Mizar on left and M101 showing at right center

    Next night:

    Comet Kobayashi-Berger-Milon, showing double star Alcor/Mizar in the Big Dipper's Handle

  6. West (C/1975 V1 ) - This Great Comet appeared in the spring of 1975. But after the disappointment of Comet Kohoutek, many failed to take the opportunity to see this spectacular display. While none of my photos turned out, I did make three crude pencil drawings of what I saw both with my Celestron-5 and some 15 X 80 binoculars. With the latter the comet sported a tail some 14 degrees long. The broad curving dust tail contrasted with the multi-streamer ion tail in a spectacular before dawn display. For myself Comet West is just a very pleasant memory.
  7. Bradfield (1979L) - Comet Bradfield, which appeared in the first half of February, 1980, was rather faint when viewed with a Celestron-5 or 7 X 50 binoculars. It showed only a soft coma, with no nucleus or tail.
  8. Stephan-Oterma - I have only a single entry for Comet Stephan-Oterma on the night of December 29, 1980. It was noted as a fuzzy object near the open cluster M36.
  9. ARAS-Araki-Alcock (1983d) - The comet made one of the closest approaches to Earth on record, passing by at 4,670,000 kilometers (2,900,000 miles). Although ARAS-Araki-Alcock was not extremely bright, its close approach made for an angular size larger than that of the full Moon. With my 15 X 80 binoculars I estimated the coma's diameter at 1-3/4 degrees! The nucleus was offset from the center of the coma suggesting a short tail. The comet's rapid motion was easily discerned in a few minutes as it passed in front of numerous field stars.

    Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock - Pentax 200mm f/4.0, 35-minute exposure with Kodacolr 400

  10. Sugano-Saigusa-Fujikawa (1983c) - Comet S-S-F was the second comet to pass by the Earth within 0.07 A.U. (astronomical unit) in 1983. This one was much fainter than IRAS-Araki-Alcock, appearing as a very diffuse, dim glow. Despite that, its rapid motion relative the field stars was apparent in a half hour of observing.
  11. Halley (1P/Halley) - Based on its spectacular visit in 1910 Comet Halley was the big one we were awaiting for years. As the time for its next appearance came nearer, it became apparent that the circumstances for the 1986 visit were not as favorable as for the prior visit. Thus while it was not the Great Comet we had hoped for, it was interesting nonetheless. My observing log shows only 3 entries for Halley. Observing with my home-made 8-inch reflector it sported a bright coma with an intense nucleus - "Very bright and striking sight". The tail was less than 1/2 degree in length.
  12. Hyakutake (1996 B2) - Comet Hyakutake was one of two Great Comets in the 1990s. While personal circumstances did not permit my capturing any photos of this one, I do have some very nice memories of what I was able to observe. Over a period of almost two weeks, the comet was an amazing sight, "a once in a lifetime spectacle". With the unaided eye, the tail extended over 22 degrees. Little did I know that a second Great Comet would appear the following year.
  13. Hale-Bopp - [3/17/97] - Most of my observations of this spectacular comet were photographic, the last of my film-based comet photography, with over 150 images being captured. But Comet Hale-Bopp is certainly one of the best comets I've ever seen. One interesting occurrence during the apparition was a partial lunar eclipse, with an orange/red shadow. At maximum eclipse (92%) the sky darkened enough to both the bright dust ail and fainter gas tail. Here is a small sample of Hale-Bopp photos, all using Fuji Super G 800 Plus color film.

    Comet Hale-Bopp - April 2, 1997, Mamiya-Sekor 55mm f/1.4 @ f/2.8, 4-minute exposure

    The dark feature in lower right is a mountain.

    Comet Hale-Bopp - April 2, 1997, Pentax 200mm f/4.0, 10-minute exposure

    Comet Hale-Bopp - April 9, 1997, Pentax 200mm f/4.0, 15-minute exposure

    As you can see I like high contrast and lots of saturation.

  14. Linear (c/2000WM1) - Observations of Comet Linear with my 8-inch reflector revealed a short, broad fan-shaped tail (1/2 degree in length) and starlike nucleus within the coma.
  15. NEAT (C/2001 Q4) - Observing Comet NEAT with the 8-inch reflector revealed a stellar nucleus within the soft 1/4 to 1/2 degree diameter coma. With 7 X 50 binoculars the broad tail was estimated to be around 2 degrees in length.
  16. Macholtz (C2004 Q2) - Using a 10-inch f/5 Dob reflector, Comet Macholtz showed a large diffuse coma with almost starlike nucleus, offset from the center, looking like a slightly bloated star. There was a suggestion of a short, vague, fan-shaped tail.
  17. Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (73P) - This periodic comet was observed to be breaking into several separate fragments. Observing with 15 X 80 binoculars, the brightest C component sported a featureless coma and short tail. With a 10-inch f/5 reflector and DGM Optics Narrow Pass Band filter at 78X a tiny starlike nucleus and short tail could be seen.
  18. SWAN (C/2006 M4) - Photographs of Comet SWAN remind me a lot of our current Comet Lovejoy. Using my 10-inch f/5 reflector this "very nice" comet had a bright coma, starlike nucleus and a suggestion of a short tail to the north. Its movement in front of the field stars was evident over the course of 1/2 hour.
  19. Holmes (17P) - Periodic Comet Holmes has to be one of the most bizarre comets on record. In the course of some 42 hours it brightened from magnitude 17 or 18 to magnitude 3.8, representing a brightness increase of 1/2 million times! As time went by its coma became a very large naked eye object, eventually becoming larger in linear size than the Sun! Rather than describing my observations, I'll just share a couple of images, among my first digital astrophotos. These are at the same scale, showing the rapid increase in size.

    Comet Holmes - October 26, 2007, Celestron-8, 2000 mm

    Comet Holmes - October 31, 2007, Celestron-8, 2000 mm

  20. PanSTARRS - Comet PanSTARRS C/2011 L4 put on a fair display almost two years ago. I made six tries to observe this comet from a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The first 5 trips had the western sky obscured by clouds. But I'm glad I didn't give up, because the last trip produced some nice results. Here are two photos:

    Comet PanSTARRS over the Pacific Ocean - Tokina OM 35-135 mm @ ~35mm

    In the above image the comet (at bottom) forms a triangle with the Andromeda Galaxy (upper right) and Mirach (Beta Andromedae, upper left).

    Comet PanSTARRS with cloud - Tokina OM 35-135 mm @ ~80mm

  21. Lovejoy - Comet C/2013 R1, the first Comet Lovejoy in this series was a fine sight in late 2013. The following image is a stack of 21 light frames, 10 each darks, flats and bias frames. Post-processing by Herra Huulapaa (Thanks, Herra).

    Comet Lovejoy - November 29, 2013, Pentax 200 mm f/4.0

  22. PanSTARRS - The second Comet PanSTARRS of this series was a dim comet, best located using my telescope's Go-To function.

    Comet PanSTARRS - June 21, 2014, Celestron-11, 1990 mm, f/7.1, stacked images

  23. Lovejoy - The final comet of this series is our current visitor Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2. Here are several of the dozens of photos captured so far - all of them are stacks:

    Comet Lovejoy - December 30, 2014, Celestron-8, 1420 mm, f/7.0

    Comet Lovejoy - January 8, 2015, almost at closest approach to Earth, Celestron-8, 1420 mm, f/7.0

    Comet Lovejoy - January 14, 2015, Pentax 200 mm f/4.0

    Comet Lovejoy - January 21, 2015, approaching perihelion, Pentax 200 mm f/4.0

    I hope you have enjoyed this journey through some of the comets of the past 58 years. What next Great Comet will appear? We'll just have to keep waiting and be ready for whatever comes our way. Even the minor comets are good practice.

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Best Regards,

 RustierOne's gear list:RustierOne's gear list
Sony Alpha NEX-5N Sony Alpha NEX-7 Sigma 19mm F2.8 EX DN Samyang 8mm F2.8 UMC Fisheye Sony E 35mm F1.8 OSS +4 more
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