Second of two parts
On Sept. 7, 2013, Australian Terry Lovejoy—using an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope—discovered what would be designated comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy. The comet during October moved into the Northern Hemisphere at a time of great excitement for comets in general, as the stargazing community waited for “The Comet of the Century,” the sun-grazing comet, ISON. My own early attempts at seeing comet ISON were disappointing, at best. Weather and ISON’s dimness left me frustrated and I decided to seek better, brighter game.
Third attempt, Nov. 30, 2013Due to poor weather conditions nearly two weeks had elapsed between my first and second attempt at documenting comet Lovejoy’s passing. Only two days after my last outing with the beautiful comet, I had another chance. I had learned a lot from my previous outings, and liked what I had done so far. Now it was time for something different: I would image in color.
I have always loved black-and-white photography. In my opinion it gives the most honest rendition of a subject and no false-color issues—just a collection of gray tones and a sort of purity not found in other forms of photography. But comet Lovejoy displayed a beautiful color, a greenish glow that could not be ignored. I favor refractors, and the wind can cause them to jiggle and vibrate and cause them problems in general, more so than telescopes of other designs. That night was windy, and I tried to make my exposures that morning between the wind gusts. I would listen to the rustling of the pine trees—they would warn me when the wind would start to pick up and I would then end my exposure. Who needs a wind gauge when you have a pine tree?
My last hours with comet Lovejoy, Dec. 12, 2013The comet’s final days were in December. Poor weather had kept me indoors, with the exception of chores around the farm. It was very cold, as nighttime temperatures hovered around and below zero. I had been reading online about the comet and viewing pictures, and noticed a recurring theme in comments made by amateur astronomers. Observers stated that they had seen a strange “sparking” in and around the comet’s tail. This idea intrigued me: Might I capture this phenomenon in a photograph?
If I braved the cold, as I had done so many nights before, perhaps it could be done in a wide-angle photograph—worth a try if I had some clear skies. Clear and cold was the forecast for that night, and I planned to set up a home-built camera tracker as near the house as I could. I would make exposures with a 35mm Carl Zeiss manual focus lens, ducking inside regularly to warm up for a couple of minutes before setting out again.
The comet was rather low in the east before dawn, and I realized I would have to make good use of my time if I was to capture the “sparking” phenomenon in Lovejoy’s tail. As time dragged on and the bitter cold tried its best to discourage me, I seemed in my last exposure to capture one of those reported sparks. It was Geminid meteor season, and the spark might have been just that, but I have found from personal experience that meteor activity is often high when a comet is in the sky. And this small spark of a meteor was apparently close to comet Lovejoy’s tail. A few hours later I fell sound asleep dreaming that perhaps I had done what I had set out to do. I might never know for sure, but in my heart, I thought maybe so. I like to think I did!
The weather after that winter’s night deteriorated rapidly into clouds and snow and those were to be my final hours spent with this beautiful comet. After a time one forgets the early mornings and the cold temperatures, but what does live on are the memories of the shimmering stars and the graceful comet with the beautiful name playing with meteors before the sunrise.
Former Arcadia resident Victor C. Rogus (F.R.A.S.) is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, living in Sedona, Arizona.