With an overseas trip to prepare for and camps to run for 70 kids starting in just a few days, getting up at 3am to chase a new comet in the morning was a little inconvenient.. but a bright comet is what I live for so I had to find a way! Friday morning in Melbourne was clouded out but that didn't stop me losing a few hours sleep on a futile short drive just to prove how bad conditions were.
After dinner with them on Friday night, we managed to convince dear friends Susan and Sam to take drag their six and four year old kids down to their parent's holiday house at Somers, on the Mornington Peninsula an hour south of Melbourne. Under very promising clear dark skies, we crashed in bed at 11pm with my alarm set for the very unpleasant hour of 2:50am!
When I woke, I jumped in the car and drove 20 minutes south to my selected observing location near Flinders. But on the way there I drove through increasing amounts of fog. As soon as I turned my headlights off at the lookout carpark, I could see part of the large and bright comet's tail above the horizon, but it was also clear that most of the sky was obscured by fog or low cloud. It was a combination of 'Wow' and 'S%&t'!
I rang the others and told them to stay in Somers rather than driving further south. Thankfully they did at least get a view of the comet's tail with the kids but did not quite get to see the whole thing, with the head lost in the fog offshore.
Meanwhile, after wasting 20 valuable minutes I started driving back north where I thought things had looked better. I drove into Merricks Beach but got lost in winding dirt roads without finding the beach. Eventually I came across the Esplanade car park at Balnarring Beach. Low cloud was still obscuring most of it but I didn't have time to move anywhere else.
With just a few minutes remaining before astronomical twilight started, I moved my equatorial mount and gear out of the car and set it up 30 metres away on the beach. After a very rough polar alignment, I started firing off shots with a 50mm lens on my Canon 5DmkII.
I had initially thought I might be able to squeeze the comet into the 200mm lens field of view since I expected the comet would be smaller than reports from previous days, but even with the 50mm lens I had to switch to portrait mode to fit it in well. And the comet appeared to shine through the clouds on the camera a little better than it did to the naked eye so I was reasonably happy with the shots I was getting despite the very frustrating clouds.
I rattled off the exposures as quick as I could, and then as it started getting light I switched to the 24mm lens for some more scenic views and switched off the tracking for most of those too. Then once the sky was swamping the comet, I jumped back in the car and proceeded to get lost on the way home, taking more than half an hour for what should have been ten minute trip back to bed. Didn't matter much as I was too buzzed to sleep much anyway!
The summer solstice is an inconvenient time of year to catch a morning comet, but this is easily the second best comet I've seen in nearly twenty years of observing. From head to tail it reached 20 degrees, which seems larger than reports from previous days. So with it getting higher in the sky before twilight, it looks like it may hang around long enough for another look in a few days time!
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