I tried to see the green comet and completely failed. It took more planning and equipment than he expected.

woman with curly hair wearing blue hat selfie smiling in front of the store

The author camped in Pinnacles National Park to try to see the ZTF green comet.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

  • I tried to see the famous green comet in the night skies, far from the city, this past weekend.

  • It was much more difficult than I expected, even with the advice of a professional, because I did not plan well in advance.

  • The moon eclipsed most of the stars and I couldn’t locate the faint comet, even with binoculars.

Only a small fraction of the human population will see the green comet howling past Earth this month. I tried to become one of them, but it was much more difficult than I expected.

I’ve heard (and written) a lot of hype about this comet, called C/2022 E3 (ZTF), or ZTF Comet for short. The ball of frozen gas and dust returned for the first time since the Ice Age 50,000 years ago.

I was already going camping at Pinnacles National Park last weekend, and thought I’d try to spot the rare celestial visitor myself.

Pinnacles is not an official sanctuary from the dark sky, but it is several hours from the big cities of San Jose and San Francisco, and you can usually see plenty of stars between its volcanic cliffs.

I thought my chances were pretty good. Maybe that was my first mistake.

colorful cliff towering over shady canyon

Pinnacles National Park is full of volcanic rock formations.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

I had never tried to locate a particular object in the night sky before, so I contacted Dan Bartlett, an astrophotographer living in California, for advice. He has been taking beautiful photos of the comet, like this one:

green kite with fuzzy white skirt and long white tail

Comet ZTF on January 28, 2023.dan bartlett

He knew he wouldn’t see anything so clear. She has a telescope set up in the mountains to get those views. But I wanted to get as close as I could without spending a ton of money.

Telescope installed in cellar dug out of deep snow at bottom of porch stairs in snowy mountains

Dan Bartlett’s setup for photographing the comet.dan bartlett

“It will be quite large, and about a quarter of the field of your binoculars,” Bartlett told me in an email.

If that was the case, I thought I couldn’t miss it.

He said binoculars were essential so I stopped at REI to buy a pair. Following his advice and some astronomy blogs I read online, I chose a $120 pair labeled 8 x 42: the first number indicates its magnifying power, and the second measures the diameter of the objective lenses in millimeters.

hand holding a black box containing binoculars inside a retail store

My fresh new binoculars at REI.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

Unfortunately, that would not be enough to detect the comet. I was hoping to at least catch a grainy green glow in the night sky, but utterly failed.

Finding faint objects in the sky is harder than you thought. It is not something to do at the last minute, with little planning and no experience.

2 things I did right: I dressed for the weather and downloaded a constellation app

At least I can congratulate myself on staying warm. The forecast showed it would drop as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit at Pinnacles, and I’m cold, so I packed lots of layers and a warm hat, socks, and scarf.

I also bought foot warmers and a rechargeable hand warmer that I got for Christmas.

orange pack of foot warmers on wooden background next to hand holding electronic hand warmer in black and white

I refuse to have cold feet!Morgan McFall-Johnsen

I also foresaw another problem that might have sent me to my tent early: I have no experience locating any celestial objects other than the moon and the Big Dipper. You would need to find Mars and the Capella star to identify the correct area to look for the comet.

Bartlett said that Sky Safari was “the best mobile phone app out there, hands down”. So I paid $4.99 to download it. The app used GPS to tag constellations, planets, and stars as I moved my phone’s camera across the sky.

The phone screenshot shows an app that projects constellations into the night sky.

A screenshot from the app that showed me where to find Mars and Capella.safari in the sky

It helped me find Mars quickly – the orange glow was a dead giveaway, but it would have taken me longer to scan the sky on my own. I probably wouldn’t have been able to watch Capella without Sky Safari.

Mistake No. 1: Picking a night when the moon would be bright

I thought I would have to wake up before dawn to avoid the moon, but it turned out that the moon would be in the sky through Friday night until almost 7 a.m. So I would be able to see the comet at a reasonable hour, Bartlett told me. .

That sounded like great news to me, as I’m not a morning person and I especially dislike waking up before the sun. But it would have been better to get up early for a moonless sunrise.

“The moon will be extremely bright and interfere. There is no way around this,” Bartlett said. “It’s like you decided to view the comet from a medium-sized city.”

full moon snow moon december

The moon wasn’t completely full, like in this photo of Lake Louise in Canada, but it was pretty close.Andy Clark/Reuters

He was more right than I realized.

Forget the comet: there weren’t even that many stars visible. It was almost as if he had never left the city. Even when I kept the moon on my back and gave my eyes 15 minutes to adjust, I didn’t see much. Every time I looked at the moon, my eyes would reset and I had to let them adjust again.

The fine wisps of clouds floating in the sky probably made it even worse.

Cloudy skies

Partly cloudy weather may also have helped thwart my attempts to detect the ZTF comet.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

Mistake No. 2: Not testing before losing internet

The ZTF comet was supposed to be 5 degrees north of the star Capella, which you can find by first identifying Mars. Locating Capella and looking north was easy. But what does 5 degrees mean?

I realized too late that I did not remember and had not written it down. It had no service at Pinnacles so I couldn’t google it. He knew the general area where the comet was supposed to be, but not how big or small that area was. So I scanned far and wide around Capella, hoping to hit the jackpot.

I saw many satellites and planes, but no comet.

woman lying on the ground on a backpack wearing a jacket, green pants and a headlamp looking up through binoculars

I stargazed from the ground when I was standing and stretched my neck out too far, and posed by the campfire for this photo.Courtesy of Arden Wells

One of the people who camped with me mentioned that he had heard that the comet would be between Ursa Minor and Ursa Major. That was a huge space, and I couldn’t verify it without the Internet, but it matched what Bartlett had told me.

That helped me identify what the problem might have been: the space between the Big Dipper and Capella passed through a large halo of light that encircled the moon. I couldn’t see any stars in that bright ring.

As the night wore on, I began to lose hope. At one point, my campmates pointed out a plane speeding past the moon, leaving a trail of condensation in its wake. They joked that it was the comet.

black night sky with bright moon and a trail of condensation from airplane speeding by

We joked that this plane and its contrail was the comet.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

I took a photo so I would have at least something to show for my efforts. Don’t let that green dot in the photo get you excited, it’s just a glitch in my phone’s camera.

Mistake #3: Thinking I could take photos with my phone through my binoculars

woman with headlamp and thick jacket holding phone up to binoculars

I tried to replicate a photographic strategy I saw in binocular reviews and it didn’t work.Courtesy of Arden Wells

Even without a comet, I enjoyed how much clearer and better resolved the stars appeared through my binoculars. I wanted to share the view, and had seen reviews of the binoculars online where people took photos by holding their phone camera close to the lens.

I tried to do the same, but all the images came out like this:

the black image shows nothing

Through the binoculars, my phone couldn’t capture anything.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

The stars did not appear at all. Taking photos directly of the sky, without binoculars, gave slightly better results:

the black image shows nothing

Some stars appear in the photo that I took directly from the sky.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

If I had seen the green comet, I would not have been able to capture it on my iPhone X.

The next morning, in bright sunlight, I tried the technique again with a lighter subject: trees on a hillside. It still didn’t work.

blurred view of trees on a hillside through a binocular lens

I would not recommend focusing the phone photo through binoculars.Morgan McFall-Johnsen

After completely failing my attempt at amateur astronomy, I have even more respect for planning, calculation, and the patience that goes into it.

Who knows, maybe I looked directly at the green comet and didn’t recognize it because it was too faint. But the next time I go looking for celestial objects, I will prepare much more. If I can, I’ll bring someone who knows what he does.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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