Comet tales: Heavenly Halley, 'sky doesn't care who you are'

South Florida campsite manager removing streetlight bulb so that the author and his wife could view Comet Halley in 1986.

Second of a two-part story, the author and his wife visiting Key West for a clear view of Comet Halley in 1986

With the problem of the glaring light finally settled and the radio predicting clear skies, we knew we would do what we came to do. We were ready for a big night, the Night of Comet: Halley’s closest approach to earth. It would be about 39 million miles away from us at its predicted peak brightness. Most experts felt it would be second magnitude—or brighter—and could be sporting a tail as long as two-dozen degrees long.

The experts were right about the magnitude estimate, but wrong about the tail length. The shortness of the tail did not matter to me. We were there ... and we had our work cut out for us. We were going to try to document this historic moment to the best of our ability. Everything was beginning to fall into place.

We had glimpsed the comet the night before, but I was too preoccupied with the glaring campground lightbulb to enjoy it. Now, the hour was upon us and we had Sir Edmund Halley’s Comet in our finder scope. Soon we had begun to make wide-angle images with a piggybacked camera. Over the course of the night we made a series of photographs using a 50-millimeter f1.8 lens on Kodak VR 1000 ASA color print film. Exposure time ranged from 10 to 20 minutes. A simple plan, but one we were comfortable with.

The next morning we considered what we had done; we made our exposures and thought it might be time to break camp and start heading home. Throughout this trip the Florida heat and humidity had been oppressive and sleeping during the day was difficult, at best. Small, fast lizards sprinted past the door of our tent and for this reason my wife preferred to sleep in the van. I found the van akin to some type of large pressure cooker and tried to find comfort outside with the lizards, as slight buffs of hot, humid air teased the flaps of my tent. We were sunburned; even the tops of our feet were red.

Fatigue was beginning to eat away at us ... and we still had the long drive home. Worst of all, the radio’s weather report was beginning to tell of approaching storms. After some discussion, we decided to indeed dismantle the campsite and weather the storm in the van—a night my wife and I will never forget. Huddled together, we watched as the driving rain and wind of this springtime storm slashed at our campsite. While the storm raged, we tried to rest in our crowded vehicle. Weather reports were not looking favorable for the next couple of days, so we decided to head back to the mainland. Once there, we would find a custom photo lab, have our film developed and, if we were satisfied with our images, we would be on our way to Disneyland.

Back on the mainland, we happily checked into a nice hotel. Consulting the phonebook, we found a local photo lab that would process our film. We explained to the lab’s proprietor that the film contained star images. (This was always a good practice, since sometimes the lab technicians would not print film of this nature thinking there is nothing on it but faint specks.) Alas, those were the days of film photography. We drove around town looking for brunch, just killing time while our film was being developed. Soon it would be ready and we could inspect the quality of our work.

Back at the hotel we cleared an end table and laid out our images. There it was, centered neatly in each frame, the object of our desire ... Halley’s Comet. One of the frames even contained a bright meteor trail! We didn’t know it at the time, but that photograph was to win Astronomy magazine’s “Best Astrophoto Award” in the August 1986 issue. This would be the catalyst that would launch me on a lifelong love affair with the sky.

In 1986, I was 26 years old. I had been interested in science and nature my whole life. Art and photography were also of keen interest to me. At the time, I was working in a graphic arts department as an artist. Having also worked professionally as a photographer, astrophotography seemed like a natural choice for me.

My family owned a small machine shop, a trade that would punctuate my career time and again in ways too many to list. My machine-shop skills allowed me to design and build my own photographic systems such as telescopes and camera trackers. Indeed, a machine shop is a great thing to have when building your own equipment, but it is not a necessity.

Just two years before I had purchased my first astronomical telescope and was really just learning my way around the sky. This trip was my first expedition to photograph a major astronomical event. This excursion was going to put my limited experience to the test. The outcome could not have pleased me more.

But the big thing I learned from this adventure was that the sky does not care who you are, or where you went to school, what you do for a living or what kind of car you drive—these things do not matter. What does matter is that the secrets of the universe reveal themselves to those people who care. These amazing sights were here for all of us who go through the pains of being where they need to be to see them and participate in their passing.

My grandmother had told tales of Halley’s Comet, and how people had killed themselves rather than suffer the effects of cyanogen gas as the earth, in its orbit, passed through the comet’s tail. I wanted to see this mysterious passing specter of the night. I wanted to photograph it, and understand it, and become closer to it.

Now, there would be no turning back. This early success would fuel me for years to come. I would have many more adventures in outer space, traveling by way of my scientific equipment, bound only by the limitations of my imagination and the border of the visible universe.

Former Arcadian Victor C. Rogus (F.R.A.S.) is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, living in Sedona, Arizona.

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