Comet ISON – My First View

Well, after all these months of waiting, blogging, chart-making and nutter-condemning, I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it. I’ve seen Comet ISON with my own eyes. Was it worth the wait? The build up? I’ll come to that later. But yes, I’m now, finally, a fully paid-up member of the “I’ve seen Comet ISON Club”.

But seeing it required an expedition to the north-east of England, several nights in a tent, with my girlfriend, our rabbit and cat, and a lot of lost sleep…

On Friday Stella and I headed up to Northumbria to take part in the annual Kielder Autumn Starcamp (a “starcamp”, for those who don’t know, is a gathering of astronomers over a camping weekend. During the day there are activities – talks, trade stands etc – and then at night, if it’s clear, everyone gets out their telescopes and cameras and observes and photographs the night sky. Everyone wanders around, looking at and through everyone else’s telescopes. Great fun!).

uk-map

It was our second trip to Kielder, which boasts one of the darkest skies in the UK because of its remoteness and lack of light pollution, having already been to and loved the Kielder Spring Starcamp back in March.

To give you some context, here’s a light pollution map showing the difference between where I live in Kendal (lower arrow) and Kielder (top arrow)…

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And close-ups reveal just how huge the difference in the darkness of the sky is between the two places…

LP Kendal_cr

LP Kielder_cr

Light pollution info from this website

Back in March the weather was “challenging” – we woke up one morning to find our tent surrounded by 5″ of snow and decorated with icicles – but on one of the three nights we were there the sky was just ablaze with stars, and we decided to come back to the Autumn camp. Obviously I was especially keen to do this because I knew I would have a great chance of seeing and photographing Comet ISON from there, however bright it was. So, up we went, with our big tent, a newly-bought canopy, and the aforementioned cat and rabbit. When we got there we found – as we had been warned – that our area of the campsite was pretty wet, just one good downpour away from turning into a very realistic recreation of one of the quagmire battlefields of The Somme…

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…but we’ve pitched on worse, and soon we were set-up, just as our great  friends and fellow Eddington ASS members Carol and Simon arrived to take up residency in their “pod”…

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Having arrived and set-up it was time to head out, meet people and explore. And for Stella to pay a quick visit to Grandma’s cottage in the woods…

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As had been the case the first time, everyone at the starcamp was fantastically friendly and made us welcome right from the start, and after saying hi to new faces and hello again to people we already knew, we headed to the pub for a well-deserved bar meal. When we emerged we found the sky full of stars…

It’s easy to convince yourself that the sky where you live – unless you live deep in a city – is “dark” and starry. But until you’ve been somewhere truly dark, like Kielder, you don’t realise just how beautiful a truly dark sky, unspoiled by light pollution, is. Let me show you just how dark Kielder is. First, a photo of Orion taken from Kendal castle earlier this month…

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Here’s Orion seen from Kielder last Friday night…

orionI know. Wow.

So I stayed out, under the stars, and took photo after photo after photo, It was very cold, but damp too, and it didn’t take too long for my camera lenses to mist up with dew. But regular cleaning meant I was able to take some really pretty photos…like this…

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…and this, showing the stars shining above our tent…

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But by midnight I was so tired I just had to go back inside for a nap. I intended it to just be for half an hour, but the tent was sooo warm and cosy, and I was so tired, that I just slept and slept. If Carol hadn’t come along to wake me up – by literally shaking the tent! – I’d have slept through til dawn, I know I would. But when I emerged at  2.30am into the utter silence of a starcamp morning I looked up and saw the sky *painted* with stars, much clearer than it had been when I went to bed for my “nap”. So I took more photos, like this one showing Jupiter just rising up from behind the trees…

jup night 1

…and then decided to Go For ISON!!

By 4am ISON was just about clearing the trees from our tent, so I wandered a little further down the field, with my trusty binocs and little refractor telescope, to where it would be a little higher. Using Sky Safari on my phone to help me pin down the exact position of ISON I started sweeping the area with the binocs… but saw nothing. Disappointing, as I knew that ISON was there, right in front of me, just there for the taking. But it was a little misty,  not perfectly clear, so I decided to try my luck photographing it instead. Firing off a bunch of frames with the 50mm f1.8 lens in my camera, set at 320) ASA, I got this… (click to enlarge and look for the circle just above the trees!)

ison trees clear fri night

I know, I know, that’s not much, especially when you compare it to the masterpieces being taken by Damian Peach and those other guys, but hey, that’s taken with just an entry level DSLR, unguided, not tracked, so I’m quite pleased with that!

I was hoping to see ISON that morning, but couldn’t find anyone actually looking at things, everyone was taking photographs through their telescopes! So I headed off to bed at around 5am, happy with my ISON photos but, yes, frustrated that I hadn’t actually seen it for myself with my own eyes yet…

The next day, the Saturday, was wet. Very wet. Actually it hosed it down, and Stella and I trudged and squelched our way down the field and up to Kielder Castle to listen to the planned series of talks (I was to be the first speaker, giving a presentation about Comet ISON, predictably!) and see what the vendors and trades-people were selling. Amazingly there was nothing I wanted on the trades stands – well, there were LOTS of things I wanted but nothing I needed and/or could afford – so I found a quiet corner to sit in and, laptop on knee, update my talk with the ISON images I’d taken just a few hours earlier. My talk seemed to go down very well, and the talks after it were very good too, but as we headed back to our tent we could tell that the rain was taking its toll on the camping field: the little puddles we had passed on the way back to the castle were now small ponds, and as we approached our tent there were ominous signs that our little piece of Kielder was on its way to becoming very soggy indeed…

After a brief rest at the tent we headed back up to the castle for tea – seriously, readers, if you’re ever at Kielder, go to the Duke’s Pantry at the castle and have the lasagne, it’s incredible – then headed back to the tent quickly, through rain and strengthening wind, with just a hint of a glimpse of a star visible through a brief gap in the scudding clouds and, abandoning all hope of seeing ISON or anything else, battened down the hatches and settled in for the night. And through that night the wind got stronger, the rain lashed down harder and harder, and for a while I actually wondered if our tent was going to lift off the ground and sail up into the air, like Dorothy’s hot air balloon, taking us with it…

…but eventually the wind stopped, the rain stopped too, and dawn broke over the campsite. I emerged from the tent to find the previous evening’s ponds had turned into lakes, so much rain had come down…

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Here and there the ground was strewn with bags that had been ripped off telescopes by the wind, and I even saw a couple of telescopes toppled over, lying in the water like dead animals…

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But the new day was beautifully bright, still and clear, and just screaming out to be started with a big breakfast, so Stella and I headed back up to the Dukes Pantry for one of their full English specials. Fortified by that we came back to the tent and began repairs – the new canopy’s  pegs had been pulled out during the night, exposing the interior to the wind and rain, but Stella had it covered…

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With the tent mopped out the rest of the day passed quickly – a trip into Newcastle before a final meal at the Anglers pub at the end of the campsite – and then, with the sky perfectly clear, and the temperature plummeting, a full night’s stargazing and photography beckoned…

That night’s sky was probably the best and the clearest I’ve ever been under. Just spectacularly clear. And it allowed me to take pictures like this…

mw2 s

m31a

plough trees s

At one point a little bank of mist drifted over the campsite, so trather than curse it I took advantage of it to try some rather more artistic shots, like this one of Jupiter blazing above the trees…

jup flare_cr

Around midnight I decided to try and find – and if possible photograph – Comet Lovejoy, which was shining just to the west of the famous star cluster M44, “Praesepe”. Sky Safari, as ever, helped me pin down its exact location, then it was just a matter of pointing the camera in that direction and clicking away… and it turned out to be very easy to capture with even my very basic set-up, looking like a fuzzy green spark (click next image to enlarge it if you can’t see it)…

lovejoy m44 circled

VERY pleased with that! But it was still way too early to see ISON – that was still a good couple of hours away from rising – so I decided to grab a couple of hours’ sleep and come back out again after thawing out and sleeping; it was so cold (minus 5 deg C I found out later) that the grass was now crisp with frost, and the pools, ponds and lakes of filthy brown water were icing over, so it was not hard to talk myself into retreating a plump and puffy warm sleeping bag for a couple of hours!

But when I emerged again… oh wow… The sky was absolutely, totally clear, not a trace of mist anywhere, just a pure, unspoiled starry night, so with my feet crumping through the glittering frost I wandered over to my neighbours, a pair of very friendly and generous Scottish guys, who were sweeping the sky with their big Dobsonian telescopes (and I mean big; one was a 16″!) and they very kindly showed me Uranus and Neptune within 5 minutes of each other! But ISON was still way behind the trees for them, so yet again I picked up my gear and headed down the track, to the area of the Pods where the treeline was much lower. And after a while, ISON’s area of sky climbed up from behind the branches, so I started to take pictures to stack together when I got back home…

…and here’s what came out the other side.. 🙂

ison stack arrow

And with a little more work…

ison stack 2 circle

Again, I know they’re not much to look at but they’re images of the comet taken with the “bare minimum” equipment – a DSLR on a static tripod, with a fast lens, set at a fast speed and aperture – and as such I think they’re ok.

Having taken those photos I really, REALLY wanted to actually SEE the comet with my own eyes! There was no obvious sign of it in my binoculars, but at that time it was in an area quite rich with faint stars so I might have been looking right at it without knowing it, so I swung my 7-mm refractor around to its position in the sky… located the precise starfield… and peered into the eyepiece, tracing out a path to its position by hopping from star to star…

And there was *something* there, visible with averted vision (astronomy speak for ‘out of the corner of my eye’) if i didn’t look right at it but looked off to one side instead. But I couldn’t be sure! It was so frustrating!! I knew it was there, in my eyepiece and in the gloriously clear sky right ahead of me, but couldn’t see the ***** thing!! My EAS friend Carol tried very hard to “get it” in her telescope for me but she was having some tracking trouble – having taken some absolutely beautiful images through her telescope earlier – so that didn’t work out. Back up the icy path to my tent and my Big Dob neighbours, in the hope they’d be able to see show me the comet, but they were set up so close to the treeline that ISON was still hidden from their view. Even more frustrated now I went further up the track to where a couple of other starcamp attendees were set up to do some serious astrophotography, with kick ass telescopes connected to kick ass cameras and laptops, and one of them very kindly showed me ISON! But only its live image on his laptop screen as he photographed it, and his neighbour was also able to show me ISON but again, only as an image on his camera’s screen after he had photographed it. Which was great, don’t get me wrong, but… well… not the same as seeing it through your own eyes, is it?

So I took some more photos, portraits of Orion, M31, and more, and lost myself in the beauty of the perfectly silent, perfectly still, perfectly clear night. By now it had gone 5am, and even wrapped up like an eskimo in my thick jacket, gloves and hat the cold was starting to seep, into my bones, and I was very tired too, approaching that yawny/noddy stage where nothing you can do will keep you awake, where you are this close to falling asleep standing up. Images of being wrapped up warm in my marshmallow-thick sleeping bag started to play in my mind, and I started preparing myself to leave the beautiful sky behind, and to resign myself to not seeing ISON from the beautiful dark forest –

Then a voice from the darkness, from the Dob guys. “Stuart, we’ve got Comet ISON if you’d like a look..?”

Bed would wait.

I crunched and scrunched over the frosty grass to where the two Dob guys were standing by their telescopes, and was directed towards the larger of the two telesopes, the same mighty 16″ light bucket which had given me a literally jaw-dropping view of the Orion Nebula on Friday night. “It’s a bit fuzzy,” I was told, “but it’s definitely there, take a look…” So I stepped up to the eyepiece, looked in…

And saw Comet ISON for the first time.

I’ll be honest. My first thought was “Oh… Is that it?” It looked… underwhelming: a small, fuzzy blur at the bottom of the field of view, with what looked like a thin, stubby tail tapering away from it. I had expected… more. But then I realised I was looking at the comet in a brightening sky and *through the trees*, with branches still in the way, so its light was being reduced and dimmed, detail lost. I looked again, harder this time, more forgivingly, and allowed myself a smile. There it was, at last, the comet I’d spent over as year blogging about here on these pages, giving Outreach talks about, protecting from the Preppers, nutters and religious whackos, with their ridiculous, increasingly pathetic and desperate tales of Nibiru, Earth impacts, solar flares and worse. That Was It.

“Hello, little one..” I whispered in the freezing darkness, and greeted Comet ISON.

Then, satisfied, mission accomplished – really I had gone to Kielder with one thing in mind, to see Comet ISON with my own eyes – I said heartfelt thank yous to my observing companions and, like a stargazing vampire, retreated from the approaching dawn. And yes, the sleeping bag enveloped me and lulled me to sleep within minutes.

Next morning dawned clear and bright and beautiful, with a phosphorus flare Sun blazing over the campsite…

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…so we treated ourselves to a walk through the forest, seeing beautiful sights like these…

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…another big breakfast up at the Pantry before cleaning out and taking down the tent…

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Then it was just time for a round of goodbyes and see you laters, before setting off back home, rushing south to get to our astronomy society’s monthly meeting on time. The drive down, through deepening twilight, offered us yet more memorable views…

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So, there you have it, my first view of Comet ISON. I got it completely wrong! I had expected my first glimpse of the comet would be from the castle, through my little second hand Travelscope, but ISON hasn’t brightened as much or as quickly as we’d hoped so it took this light-gulping beast…

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…to show me the comet for the first time. Which was both a surprise and a disappointment, I’ll admit. Many people are now predicting real doom and gloom for Comet ISON. Someone at the starcamp remarked to me “It’s going to be another Kohoutek”, and while I don’t think that’s true – there are reports just today of ISON suddenly becoming a lot more active – it’s fair to say that ISON really needs to buck its ideas up if it’s to put on the show we all hope it will. If it doesn’t start to brighten soon I fear it might remain an Astronomers’ Comet and not become a People’s Comet. But there’s still a way to go and I have faith she won’t let us down after rounding the Sun at the end of the month, I really do.

In the meantime, I’m taking comfort in the fact that I have finally seen ISON for myself. And from now on the views should only get better. So, everyone, buckle up; it’s about to get very interesting indeed…

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6 Responses to “Comet ISON – My First View”

  1. Congratulations on seeing Comet ISON!! I myself haven’t seen it yet, just clouds and a couple of glimpses of Jupiter and Mars.

  2. A great lil story there! Im hoping to see some ISON goodness during this coming week (with my camera that is) but the weather isn’t exactly on my side. Saying that though, down here on the Isle of Wight the clouds often break up unexpectedly so maybe I will get a snap or two.

  3. I am sorry , but I have started to curse at Comet Ison after I carried around a pair of IS Binos nearly 10 degrees south of my home while on a trekking holiday in the Pyrenees for the month of October.
    I was fully convinced I would see some sort of fuzz on moonless temperature inversion nights when the clouds below block out much of the lights from Mordor,
    It was useful for watching vultures ,the bright stuff in Sagittarius etc etc but not that bloody comet.

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