CNYO Observers Log: Comet ISON At Highland Forest, 15 November 2013

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

One of the benefits of spending your time in the sciences is the development of a healthy skepticism for science news that makes it out to the major print and online news services. Be it new findings on vitamins or “breakthroughs” in fusion, there’s often an astronomical difference between what appears in initial reports and what actually settles as established fact in the laboratory or marketplace. As one of my favorite radio personalities puts it (about military conflicts, but the logic applies) “The first three reports are always wrong.”

Comet ISON started out early this year with such headlines as “Comet Of The Century?” (and that was NASA), “ISON May Appear Brighter Than Full Moon As It Passes Earth,” (from HuffPo, among many others), and other all-too-optimistic accolades undeserving of an object for which almost nothing was known at the time. But it sounded good in the small news snippets that passed around many astronomy email lists. This last month has finally seen some more serious scientific questions raised in the media concerning its composition, actual brightness, flaring, etc., as real data has made its way to us for analysis. The final result, so far, is far from advertised early on. But coal to the eyes of a non-observer can be gold to to the eyes of an observer, so many an amateur has found time to make it outside to take in at least one view of Comet ISON.

It is with the above in mind that I report on a facebook-announced CNYO observing session for Comet ISON held on Friday, November 15th at the most unreasonable hour of 3:30 a.m. The attendees, including Ryan Goodson, Hanh Le, and myself, braved the bitter cold for a 30 minute drive South to Highland Forest, an all-around excellent location for enjoying the Night Sky (and, I am pleased to report, a future location of regularly-scheduled CNYO events for 2014. Post to follow!).

And why the 15th? There are many factors that govern when an observer will drag their equipment outside.

* The easy one is the weather – cloudy nights, bitter cold, or hot, swampy nights (and their associated mosquito infestations) leave the intrepid amateur to hang out at home and in the discussion forums on cloudynights.com.

* The second one is the presence or absence of the Moon. As our closest natural satellite, the Moon is one of the most enjoyable (and brightest) objects to spend one’s time exploring (and, with a clear window, can be done just as enjoyably indoors). The downside is that the lit Moon washes out the dim details of many a fuzzy nebula, galaxy, or comet. If the Moon is out, many an amateur astronomer isn’t. In the case of the morning of the 15th, the Moon set just before 4 a.m. (at which point something as dim in surface brightness as a comet becomes a much more tempting target).

* The third is the timing of the object itself. While much of what’s observed in the Night Sky lasts for hours at a time every night, certain events occur over relatively narrow windows. The occultation or transit of Jupiter’s moons is one, satellite or ISS fly-bys is another. Comet ISON at its then-current window was yet another one, as it rose quite close to the beginning of sunrise (“the beginning” meaning the start of brightening skies that would wash its detail out) and wasn’t going to appear at any more convenient a time prior to its closest approach to the Sun.

* The fourth is the combination of all three. During the week of the 11th, the skies were predicted to clear only at the end of the week, Comet ISON was set to rise later every morning in the East, and the Moon was set to set later and later in the West. Combined with increased cloud cover on the 16th, the early morning of the 15th became THE WINDOW for Comet ISON.

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The West and constellations from Highland Forest at 4:00 a.m. Click for full size.

The group convoy’ed out to a frosty Highland Forest and set up the scopes just to the East of the main building. As anyone who’s stopped at the building before or after a hike will know, the view from this location is remarkable, with a low tree line and steep-ish hill bracketing views of the Fenner Wind Farm towards the South and just a hint of Syracuse civilization towards the North. The Winter Constellations of Canis Major, Taurus and Orion just beginning to peak out at “reasonable hours” now were in full view to the West at 4:00 a.m. Comet ISON, while approaching uncomfortably low on the horizon for a Dob, was visible as a fuzzy 4th magnitude ball with a slight tail (most definitely an obvious object in Ryan’s New Moon Telescope Dob and my 25×100 Zhumell binos). The wind was just fast and gusty enough to keep us from finding Comet Lovejoy, which was at about 9th magnitude in the same sky (it will be a target for future observing sessions).

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Ryan Goodson sneaking a low peak at Comet ISON. Click for full size.

As of this posting on 30 November, ISON has just barely survived its trip around the Sun (earliest reports saying it had disintegrated, slightly later saying it may have survived as a dark ball, now more recent reports saying something with a tail has survived) but we don’t yet know if it’s going to be observable on its “way out.” Stay tuned to future reports.

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