Comet Memories…

I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few comets during my time as an amateur astronomer…

1983: COMET IRAS-ARAKI-ALCOCK

In May of 1983 (what?!?!?! 1983????!!!!) I saw my first comet. I’d looked for a couple before that without success, but Comet IAA was bright enough, and in such an “easy” part of the sky, that it was easy for me to find. It helped that it was bright enough to be visible to the naked eye as a large (Moon-size) smudge in the night sky, with no obvious sign of a tail, although a faint tail was visible in binoculars. My best views of the comet were had from a layby just outside Cockermouth, with my long-suffering mum. The comet was a smudgy/misty/circle in Ursa Minor (see above), and moving so quickly that, through binoculars, you could actually detect its movement through the starfield if you looked every five minutes or so. Comet IAA wasn’t much to look at but its rapid movement through the stars, its obvious green colour, and its ease of location made it a great warm-up act for The Big One which was going to appear just a couple of years later…

1985/6: HALLEY’S COMET

Every amateur astronomer – no matter how old they are, when they’re born or where they live – grows up reading, thinking and dreaming about Halley’s Comet. Because it’s orbit brings it into our view once every 76 years or so, it’s a true “once in a lifetime” event for us. If we’re lucky, it’s due to appear in our sky well before we’re too old and decrepit to get out into the darkness and see it. If we’re unlucky, it’s so far in our future that it’s 50/50 if we’ll see it or not. For my generation, born in the 1960s, it was destined to appear when we were “growing up”, and still young enough to get all giddy and excited about it, as we hadn’t been disappointed and let down by the universe yet! ๐Ÿ™‚

So, I grew up reading about the famous “Halley’s Comet” in library books, at school and in the library, and I was desperate to see it. By the time it appeared in my sky, in late 1985, I was “Into” astronomy enough to know that it wasn’t going to put on a dazzling performance – at least, not from where I lived, in the northern hemisphere. The best I could hope for was a short, stubby tail, and a head bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.

Come November 1985 and I began to search for the comet, then little more than a tiny, out of focus “star” drifting its way through the cluttered starfield of Taurus. Finally, FINALLY I found it on the evening of November 5th, “Bonfire” or “Fireworks” Night here in the UK. I remember it so vividly. I was stood there, at the top of a sports field close to my home, scanning Taurus with my binocs, pretty sure that the amount of bonfire smoke and firework crud in the atmosphere would mean I had no chance, but I had to try. And finally I spotted it – and it was only just there, barely there, a small blurry spotty smudge exactly where my Halley’s Comet observing guide said it would be! That was a huge thrill – I’d seen HALLEY’S COMET!!!!

Over the next few months I saw Halley’s many times, and had a few decent views of it in the pre-dawn sky, but it never got really bright from where I lived, and it left me rather unmoved to be honest, and when it finally departed from the sky I didn’t feel too great a sense of loss. More of an “Hmmm, ok…” feeling. I did have one great moment tho, when I went to an old lady’s house to show her the comet for the *second* time in her life, as she had seen it in 1910 when she had been a really young girl. Her father had shown it to her, and assured her she would never see it again. She was absolutely delighted to have “Proved the old ******* wrong!!!” ๐Ÿ™‚

Then my comet-watching went very quiet for a while – until something special, something amazing appeared in the sky a decade later…

1996: COMET HYAKUTAKE

Comet Hyakutake put on a fantastic show in the night sky in 1996, a show never to be forgotten by anyone who saw it. With its bright head, greenish-hued again, and long, loooong, stoopidly-long tail, it was a naked eye treat, and captivated amateur astronomers and the man, woman and dog in the street alike. Even visible from light polluted towns, Hyakutake was just a beautiful sight, and did a lot to redeem the public’s image ofย  “comets” after the disappointment of Halley’s a decade before.

My best view of Hyakutake was from the deep, dark Cumbrian countryside, on a night that started off overcast and distinctly unpromising. Having driven miles out into the country in the hope of seeing the comet, my little observing group and I decided that it was stupid to just head back, so we parked up and waited…and waited…and waited…

This, remember, was in the days before Twitter, before Smartphones, before Apps. We sat there not knowing if the weather would clear or not; not knowing if we had even a slim chance of seeing the comet. We couldn’t check an app to see if clear sky was heading our way, couldn’t consult Twitter for comet observing reports from other observers elsewhere. All we could do was sit there, in the cars, staring out at the overcast sky through the windows, and hope…

Eventually a small gap appeared in the cloud, and a handful of stars peeped through. We piled out of the cars to stand in the open air, wishing desperately for the sky to clear and reveal the comet. And it took a while, a long time actually, but eventually the sky did clear, that small gap in the clouds ripped open like a wet paper tissue and…

…there it was… a long green-white beam of light, like a single, straight auroral beam stabbing across the sky. As the gap in the clouds grew larger, more and more of the tail’s already-impossible length appeared, until we were sure that we couldn’t possibly be looking at the comet’s tail, *that* was just waaaay too long – Then the head appeared, and we knew that yes, we were looking at Hyakutake, and its tail that crossed half the sky, like a WW2 anti-aircraft seachlight…

I had many more nights of Hyakutake-watching, from parks, my garden, other hillsides, but none came close to the magic of that night.

1997: HALE-BOPP

A year later, another comet appeared in the sky. Not just another comet – The Comet, the one we had been waiting for for so long. A comet with a double-barrelled name that was destined to go down in history as one of the most beautiful comets seen for generations…

I started to look for Hale-Bopp very early, when it was just a classic “out of focus star” in binocs. I had lots of false alarms, in those early days, and frequently mistook tiny background star clusters or galaxies for the comet. (One night I was absolutely convinced I “had” it, but when I checked I’d ‘discovered’ the well-known star cluster M11, the Wild Duck Cluster in Scutum! D’oh!!) But eventually I spotted it, and began to follow it on its epic and eventful trek across the sky.

There were too many magical Hale-Bopp nights to list them all, but some of the highlights were…

* Showing the comet to dozens of people at a busy, noisy “Comet Watch” on the playing fields of Cockermouth School…

* Watching the comet completely on my own, in blissful silence and calm, on the playing fields of Cockermouth School…

* Standing in the very centre of the ancient Castlerigg stone circle just above Keswick, watching Hale-Bopp emerge, twin tails first, from behind one of the towering Lakeland fells…

* Standing in a lay-by just outside Cockermouth, on a windy night, watching Hale-Bopp through the topssing and dancing branches of trees by the side of the road…

…and there were many more, but too many to bore you with so I’ll stop there! But what a sight Hale-Bopp was, with its twin tails, one straight and blue-white (the gas tail) the other curved and more yellowish (the dust tail)…

Seen by hundreds of millions – if not billions – around the world, it was a landmark event not just in astronomical history, but history full stop. If either PANSTARRS or ISON turn out to be as good as Hale-Bopp I’ll be happy…

Then a long, long gap…until…

2007:ย  COMET MCNAUGHT

Ah, Comet McNaught… how you feel about Comet McNaught depends entirely on where on Earth you lived when it was in the sky in January 0f 2007. If you lived in the southern hemisphere it was a sky-spanning wonder, a dazzling, multi-tailed extravaganza! It looked like this…

BUT… if, like myself, you lived in the northern hemisphere, it was a very different sight. For us, Comet McNaught was a teeny tiny fan-shaped spark of light only-just-there in a bright western sky after sunset as it raced towards perihelion, and all but the most eagle-eyed of observers needed binoculars or a telescope to see it. I looked for it many, many times before I finally found it, and when I did I only managed to glimpse it for a few fleeting moments before a typically huge Cumbrian cloud bank reared up and covered it.

I did actually manage to take a few photos through my telescope – just by holding up my point and shoot digital camera to the eyepiece and clicking away, hoping for the best – and here’s the best one, which I’m quite proud of, just because it shows that monster above when it was still just a baby, before it began to roar…

See? Not much, I’m the first to admit, but it’s there!

Soon after that Comet McNaught swooped around the Sun, and reappeared in the southern sky – and the rest is history. I never saw it again. Well, that’s not true. I saw it again thousands of times, on my computer, because everyone with a camera “down under” took a beautiful image of it and put it on the internet for us Northerners to drool and sob over. But at least I got to see it. It even inspired a couple of astropoems…

“Comet Tale”

“Fly By”

Hopefully Comet ISON will be the northern hemisphere’s Comet McNaught…!

2007:ย  COMET HOLMES

2007 went out with almost as big a Comet bang as it arrived, when the astronomy world was caught with its pants down by the sudden outburst of Comet Holmes, which was, then, far, far away from the Sun. It had been followed by dedicated comet hunters for a while, glowing in their telescope eyepieces like a tiny, dim, starry smudge, well below naked eye brightness. Then overnight – yes, overnight – on October 24thย  it increased in brightness by HALF A MILLION TIMES, and was suddenly easy to see with the naked eye! What happened? Well, the popular theories were a) “A concentration of volatiles inside it suddenly burst into life, making the comet brighter”, and b) “Something smacked into it, sending huge amounts of debris off it, making it brighter. ”

Whatever happened, Comet Holmes suddenly shouted “Ta DAH!!!” at Earth and we all scrambled to look for and at it. Of course, the ever-reliable Cumbrian weather decided to make finding Holmes a task on a par with finding the Holy Grail, and it wasn’t until October 28th that I finally saw it for myself. It was an easy naked eye object shining among the stars of Perseus, and just standing in my backyard I was able to spot it. Through binoculars and my small telescope it looked like a small grey-white puffball, no hint of a tail, just a round smudge of chalk dust surrounded by stars. I grabbed a few photos too, but this was long before I owned a digital SLR, so I was restricted to holding up my cheapie point ‘n shoot digital camera to the eyepiece of my telescope and clicking and hoping for the best. Because Holmes was an extended object, it was very hard to photograph in this way, but I didn’t do too badly… you’ll probably need to click on this image to enlarge it to see the comet…

I saw Holmes quite a few times after that initial sighting, but it really was just a round smudge, and the main appeal of seeing it was in knowing – or wondering – what had happened to it, way Out There, and appreciating that I was seeing something very, very unusual and rare…

Comet Holmes inspired another astropoem, too…

“Hide and Seek With Holmes”

2009: COMET LULIN (aka “The One That Got Away”)

In February 2009 another comet was in the Cumbrian night sky, Comet Lulin, but it’s gone down in my personal comet observing history as “The One That Got Away”, because I managed to see it just once in the whole time it was visible. And it wasn’t much to look at, to be honest, just another eyepiece smudge. People blessed with clearer, darker skies reported it was “beautiful” etc etc, but the weather at the time here in Cumbria was so godawful that my reaction when I saw it was, if I’m perfectly honest, to mentally put a tick mark next to its name and surrender it to the sky. Seen it. Bye bye.

2010: COMET HARTLEY

October 2010, and – according to my blog – I managed to catch a couple of glimpses of Comet Hartley. I can’t honestly remember much about it! It can’t have been that exciting, eh?

…so, here we are, October 2012, and we’re just around the corner from The Year Of The Comets! In less than 6 months Comet PANSTARRS should be visble in the west after dark, hopefully looking like “Hale-Bopp 2” as some are calling it. And then, at the end of next year, Comet ISON will be in the sky, looking like… well, we don’t know, and won’t know until those cold November nights roll around and we actually see it emerging from the sunset glow. Maybe we’ll know sooner though… maybe we (and by “we” I mean, of course, experts with much bigger brains than me! hah !) will be able to extrapolate ISON’s maximum brightness after watching it head in towards the Sun, earlier in the year? Part of me hopes that happens, but another part – probably a bigger part- wants it to be a surprise, you know?

We should hope for the best, no harm in that, none at all, but prepare for less than that, because if I’ve learned one thing in all my years as an amateur astronomer it’s that comets are evil, wicked, cruel, unreliable, lying, deceitful, devious *******s, who promise the universe then run away, laughing at you, just because they can, because it’s fun. Hopefully PANSTARRS and ISON won’t do that, but there’s a chance they will. So, until we actually see them, let’s all just cross our fingers.

Stuart Atkinson October 10th 2012

UPDATE: January 19th 2013

Woohoo!! After a long search I finally found the box containing slides (younger readers might not know what ‘slides’ are. We used to use them to take photographs on back in the Dark Ages, in those days before the internet, before Tablets, and before Transformers films. Google “35mm slides”, you will be amazed at what we used to go through back then. I don’t know, you young whippersnappers, don’t know you’re born nowadays…!!) I took of Comet Hale-Bopp back in 1996 and 1997. Ah, the memories came flooding back I can tell you. So, big thank you to local Kendal form “Piciscan” for scanning some of the slides for me so I can show them here…

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I’m really pleased with them, considering they were taken with a battered 2nd hand Practika and Boots colour slide film! And looking at them has left me positively drooling, wondering how much better the pictures will be I can take using my modern DSLR… Can’t wait!

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9 Responses to “Comet Memories…”

  1. What about Ikeya Zhang and Macholz? did you manage to see those?

  2. you do realise you are giving your age away! brilliant photos Stu thanks for sharing them. whatever we see will be worth the wait ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. That’s a great slideshow, Stu. I’ve been an amateur astronomer since age nine (1950). I saw Hyucatake, Halley (wonderful, but I sure had toi work at it) and was especially entranced with Hale-Bopp; ‘managed to get quite a few photos of Hale-Bopp, but all with film. I’ve seen several others since, but most were telescopic.. One of your Hale-Bopp photos (the one with the trees & farmhouse) is stunning—I wish I had a copy if it. Thanks for a fine presentation! —Ed Greding. ejgreding@hctc.net

  4. Buongiorno..scrivo dall’Italia ed ultimamente seguo molto il suo blog, che mi รจ rimasto molto utile per la visione di PannSTARRS. Volevo chiedere se avete informazioni a riguardo della cometa Lemmon, che dovrebbe essere visibile nei nostri cieli dai primi di aprile. Ringraziando lascio un link con una mia foto di PannSTARRS sopra le Alpi svizzere http://nikonclub.it/gallery/index.php?module=listGallery&method=detail&id=1028343

  5. I was thrilled to see my Comet IRAS-Iraki-Alcock photos on here. I am even older than you. I got a couple of Polaroid images of Comet Bennet in 1970 and watched Comet West in 1976 moving towards and then through Delfinus. (just sketches though I had one terrible photo and now cannot find the print or negative).

    • Hi Jo-Ann, BRILLIANT to hear from you, and I’ll be delighted (and proud!) to add a credit to the pics if you let me know which ones they are. I didn;t see Bennett or West, IRAS-AA was my first comet, and I still remember gazing breathlessly at it through my first telescope as it drifted like a dandelion seed through Ursa Minor. Happy to have you reading my blog, thanks again!

  6. when i was a kid. lo those many years ago, i had a paper route delivering newspapers (remember those) in early mornings by bicycle. this was 1965 so i was just turning 13 that fall when the comet of the century (perhaps?) visited, at least it was MY comet of the century.. i believe the name was ikeya-seki. this comet was a sun-grazer passing just 450,000 miles above the sun’s surface, and it emerged with an extremely bright tail that spanned nearly half the sky before dawn. i was in Kentucky, in the “bourbon patch” at the time and this was a really special event in my childhood. i remember that there were also some extraordinary meteor showers associated with this comet that i woke up the entire family for. these were also pre-dawn – i recall there were perhaps dozens of meteors at its peak and they were leaving vapourous trails. i’m hoping for something like this from ISON. fingers crossed. thanks stu for opening up these memories.

    • You’re very welcome. Thanks for sharing your great memories with us. The comet you saw was the Great Comet, Ikeya-Seki, yes. The meteor storm you saw in 1966 was the Leonid Storm, and many thousands of shooting stars fell in a blizzard of meteors. Not related to the comet in any way tho; the dust particles we see burning up in the Leonids came from a comet called Tempel-Tuttle. The Leonids occur every mid-Nov, and are actually happening now, I saw quite a few this morning whilst out observing ISON. ๐Ÿ™‚

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