www.Nightskyhunter.com www.Nightskyhunter.com

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE From Northern Ireland - Page 1


''If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away''...Henry David Thoreau


It was the sight of a bright naked eye comet which changed my life forever. Back in the early Spring of 1997 on a frosty night a friend and I accidentally witnessed a great comet rise tail-first over the trees from a dark country location outside Maghera, we stood transfixed as a vivid ghostly form with a search light beam tail rose among the stars, I felt frozen, not by the chill from the cold night but by the sight of this alien visitor on the sky, this was C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp and my first introduction to a great comet. This single chance encounter while meeting an old friend caused the path of life to deviate into a direction I never seen coming, it was this comet which got me to look up, it was this sighting which sparked my entire interest in Astronomy and began a life long obsession with comets.

To me comets are special, they are elite, I rank the presence of a comet as the finest phenomena one can witness in nature. My life and my interests have evolved greatly since that fateful night, not only am I a dedicated amateur astronomer, photographer, storm chaser and in recent times a passionate drone pilot but I am also a disciplined and dedicated lover of comets. I have spent years observing every known comet which came within range of my telescopes, I had observed, recorded and sketched 72 comets and have dedicated over a decade searching for new comets resulting in over 1300 hours of visual sweeping so I can say with confidence that comets are given the highest of priority in my life. I have observed a vast range of beautiful comets from barely visible diffuse patches of light to striking objects with gorgeous tails, it seems that no two comets are ever the same and their ability to change their appearance and behavior from night to night combined with their unpredictability make them very exciting objects to observe.

The dream of any lover of comets is of course to witness that rare sight of a bright naked eye comet. Exceptional naked eye comets are very rare specimens with the average observer only witnessing a good show a few times in his or her life time. A comet bright enough to be casually seen by anyone looking up may only appear on average every ten or twenty years and this statistic seems to hold true. Observers in the southern hemisphere have been treated to more than their fair share of 'greats' such as C/2006 P1 McNaught in 2007 and C/2011 W3 Lovejoy in 2011, both of these were magnificent sights, the former being the comet of a life time, they were at their finest below the equator so observers in the northern hemisphere missed out on a tremendous show. It felt unfair however it was only a matter of time before nature delivered the goods, or so we thought. It looked like our dreams could comet true when C/2012 S1 ISON was discovered, this comet was a sungrazer which was expected to become a truly great comet with promises of a huge tail post-perihelion. I had never been as excited for a comet as I was for ISON, this is what I had been waiting on, I had trouble sleeping, I spent hours online learning everything I could while studying sky charts and planning where I would be standing to catch it on camera, it seemed comet fever was rife across the world. I made my first observation of ISON on November 4th 2013 before dawn and managed to hunt it down in the telescope, once I knew where to look I could see it with the naked eye, the sky was so bright there was nothing else visible with no other stars, all I saw as a high altitude airplane with contrail passing the comet's tail, everything looked great, once the comet rounded the sun the show would be underway.

When ISON entered the LASCO C3 images onboard SOHO the comet broke apart and fizzled out taking away all my dreams with it, ISON was a damp squib and the biggest comet disappointment of my life. This was a lesson from nature which would repeat itself in the future, some comets are fragile things which can't survive the mighty heat and gravitional pull from our Sun. I had never felt such a let down like it, I will admit that I came close to crying, I cursed the sky and asked the universe, how much longer do I have to wait to see a good comet again?, the odds seemed not in my favor and I seriously wondered would I even be alive by the time the next good comet appeared in the northern hemisphere. Life went on and although I felt slapped in the face by comets I remained faithful and stayed as passionate as ever and continued observing every comet I could. I got rewarded in 2013 when C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS appeared in our Spring evening sky, this comet didn't quite reach magnitude expectations as its rate of brightening had slowed down but this aside the post-perihelion show was memorable. L4 was an easy naked eye dusty comet which was looked all the more remarkable because it made a wonderful conjunction with the Andromeda Galaxy. I observed and imaged this comet on many nights and although it was never a prominent sight for the public it still put on a photogenic show for experienced comet observers, this was also Roisin's first sighting of a comet and to this day we still savour the memories we have of watching it together from the Co. Antrim coast from Dunluce Castle and the Giant's Causeway.

Pan-STARRS was good and kept the hunger at bay however it wasn't long before I once again developed a taste for a bright comet. In recent years I discussed this very question with veteran comet observer John C. McConnell on social media. On many a night we chatted until 3am discussing comets we had seen together and of course with me harassing John to share with me, for the millionth time, his memories of comet C/1969 Y1 Benett, C/1956 R1 Arend-Roland and C/1957 P1 Mrkos, I loved hearing these stories as much as John loved re-living them again. We also chatted about the outburst of 17P/Holmes in 2007 which we witnessed during its historic outburst and I shared my fond memories of 153P/Ikeya-Zhang which was my favourite naked eye comet since Hale-Bopp. My log books tell stories of other comets which were naked eye and very special which may have slipped through the media's interest such as C/2002 F1 Utsunomiya (2002), C/2002 V1 NEAT (2002), C/2004 F4 Bradfield (2004) and C/2004 Q2 Machholz (2004) which were all exquisite specimens which have forged unforgettable memories in my heart. Then the chat always came around to the future, when will we ever get to see a proper naked eye comet again?, we both agreed that statistically we were long over due a good one and John's advice was that patience was the key.

Spring 2020 looked to have been the answer to my celestial prayers, newly discovered comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS was expected to become a great comet and once again I became engulfed by comet fever. All indications where that Y4 would make a very close pass to the Sun low in the north and would become a striking object with long tail and would be located near Capella, I imagined the comet located within NLCs and fantasized about the amazing images I would get. With building excitement I waited then Covid-19 happened and we ended up in lock down, I couldn't believe it, quite possibly the comet of a life time and I was stuck at home, this generated much anxiety then counter measures as I figured out where I might be able to shoot it from close to the house. I need not have worried, the comet disintegrated long before it got close to the Sun, I observed it from the back garden with the 8" night after night fascinated as the comet of the century turned into a fuzzy haze barely visible against the background stars, I could see its elongated shape indicating that it was nothing more than a fading rubble pile, once again we lost a good comet to the wrath of the Sun, I followed it until it vanished below the neighbour's tree tops and it was gone forever. How could us northern hemisphere observers be so unlucky?, two comet events which disintegrated.

Then came C/2020 F8 SWAN, this was a new discovery using the SWAN instrument onboard NASA's SOHO spacecraft, this comet was an unexpected surprise after the let down of ATLAS, although it was never expected to become exceptionally bright it did surpass predictions and began to brighten rapidly. Observers in the southern hemisphere were capturing dramatic images with a complex ion tail, as it approached perihelion it was expected to brighten further, some warned its rate of brightness was concerning and that it's triangular shaped condensation within the coma was indicative of disruption however in the heat of the moment little heed was paid to this and observers in the north waited once again for another chance at a decent comet, if it kept brightening at its current rate then it could be visible with the naked eye after perihelion. The moment came, I waited for a clear night and with lock down restrictions easing I drove out to Lough Fea on May 24th with the 8" telescope, I found a quiet back road and set up the scope and began searching through the region of sky to the SE of Auriga. After an intense search through bright twilight sky I found SWAN, and what a disappointing sight it was, I could barely see it at all and estimated its magnitude at +8.2, it should have been naked eye, the comet had disintegrated, I couldn't believe it, three chances all gone, this was difficult to take, many astronomers felt bitter from such a dramatic series of let downs and it looked like our comet drought in the north would continue for a long time to come.

However 2020 was to become the Summer of comets. A new comet was discovered on March 27th 2020 by a spacecraft called NEOWISE or Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. This orbiting telescope had been tasked with scanning the solar system in the infrared wavelength in the search for near Earth asteroids and comets which could threaten our planet. The instrument made a number of discoveries however it was its latest find designated C/2020 F3 NEOWISE which would mark its place in the history books. This was a long period comet inbound from the Oort Cloud, a vast spherical distribution of comets located half way to the nearest star, this comet had been perturbed from its frozen quarantine by a gravitional nudge and had been slowly falling towards the Sun in a journey lasting perhaps a million years. Once the inert frozen world passed Jupiter it woke from its slumber in response to solar heating and began to vent gas and dust and form a coma then later a tail. The comet soon became within visual range for observers in the southern hemisphere and began to brighten rapidly, perhaps too rapidly, the BAA comet section web site had stated its rate of brightening would not last and was not a good sign and furthermore the nucleus was small and the comet would likely decrease in magnitude, in other words, don't get your hopes up.

However the comet continued to perform and became a pretty sight in CCD images and by late June observers were reporting it at mag +7 before it was lost in solar glare. The comet would make a close approach to the Sun and during perihelion passage it would actually approach inside the orbit of planet Mercury, with such exposure to intense heating the comet didn't have a promising future, if by some chance it did survive it would become visible in the morning sky in the northern hemisphere and could be a binocular object, perhaps even faintly visible to the naked eye. However no one paid it any attention, we had been let down too many times and many turned their backs on NEOWISE, in fact, many 'moved on' and forgot about the comet entirely, then this happened.

NEOWISE was lost within the glare of the Sun and went unseen from observers on Earth, then it entered the field of the LASCO C3 field on SOHO where the world could pry into the secrets of its close encounter with our nearest Star. NEOWISE went into outburst and flared in brilliance peaking at mag +0 with a developing dust tail. Comet observers around the world suddenly paid attention, this comet had took everyone by surprise, it hadn't disintegrated at all, in fact the nucleus looked healthy and very active, the comet had survived perihelion passage and was only days away from appearing in the morning sky and going by all accounts there looked to be a high chance of a bright comet.

This was actually happening, amazing images began to appear online on the days ahead showcasing a beautiful comet and I knew that with each passing night the comet's elongation (distance) from the Sun would increase with NEOWISE emerging into a darker sky, there was nothing to stop it from putting on a good show. The comet would first appear in the morning sky then trek NE before becoming visible as an evening object then circumpolar from mid northern latitudes, the comet would be very low in the sky, I was well trained in hunting comets close to the horizon so this would be like second nature however what did concern me was the time of year. During Summer we don't experience true astronomical darkness at all, in fact, our nights are simply bright twilight with only the brighter stars on view so there was a risk that this situation could hinder the appearance of NEOWISE, on the other hand we were in the middle of Noctilucent Cloud season which offered the rare chance of capturing a comet in the vicinity of or even within NLCs, this would be an experience which I had yet to tick off my list, in truth I would find out when I saw it.

The only real obstacle was the weather, it was frustrating to watch images come in from all over the world showing what was now becoming a beautiful object while I sat under cloud. I was clouded out for three entire nights in a row, I didn't sleep at all on any of these nights as I scanned satellite images combined with visual checks of the sky from the backyard in the hope of an unexpected break but it was quite hopeless. The same thing happened with McNaught in 2007 when I had an entire week of cloud while observers watched a daylight comet beside the Sun with the naked eye, the weather in N. Ireland can be cruel with its timing when it comes to special astronomical events. However there's one thing I always remind myself of when the odds seem stacked against you regarding sky phenomena, and that's to never ever give up, you must show nature that you are dedicated and passionate then only when you have earned your rite of passage will she reveal her wonders, I live by this mantra and I applied faithfully, I sensed my wait would soon be over, when you haven't seen a 'proper' naked eye comet for 23 years you do get rather intense and obsessive to get your hard earned reward.

July 6th/7th - yet another night of completely overcast skies, I stepped outside and rounded the corner of the house at 01.30 and suddenly I saw several wide clear strips yawning open across the northern sky which were not expected. I rushed inside, grabbed my gear and drove a couple of hundred meters down the road, I didn't want to go any further as those clear strips could fill in at any moment, I had found a field near where I live which I had sussed out during lock down which had been reserved for ATLAS and now was the time to try it. I climbed a gate and ascended a steep grassy hill until I arrived at the summit. I set-up the Canon 5D Mark IV with 100-400mm lens, focused on Jupiter and turned my attention to the N, I began taking exposures within those gaps in the region of sky between Auriga and Gemini, I shot overlapping fields back and fourth along several horizontal strips, I picked up a star which may have been Beta Tauri but no comet, the above image is one of these patrol fields with the tall grass in the field extending upward into the FOV. I swept the sky over and over with 25x70mm binos and yet again I saw nothing, I was scanning so low I could see distant hills and tree tops on the horizon. By 03.00 the sky had brightened and the clouds had closed in, the last thing I saw was the hazy waning full moon rising in the E before I called it a night. Back in the house I downloaded and searched every image but I had come up empty handed, I felt gutted. A check on a star chart informed me that the comet was actually located behind a patch of cloud between those two clear sectors, talk about a tough blow, however the lack of success made me even more focused to see this new visitor.

July 7th/8th - I was determined to see NEOWISE this night, an instinct told me I was going to succeed so I never let my guard down. I spent the day studying forecasts which added to the confusion for it seemed none could agree on where it would clear. There was a consensus that the NEly breeze with building high pressure might generate clear skies, however if I chose wrongly I could end up under cloud cover. The AROME model was indicating the north coast had potential yet the Met Office and local forecasts were not so keen, it seemed nobody could agree, my heart said N, then I got a comment on social media from expert forecaster Paul Knightly from TORRO that models indicated encouraging signs of clear skies at the N coast, I considered Paul's guidance an omen and decided that the N coast it was going to be. I packed the van with snacks and water, I included all my camera gear, tripods, binoculars, the Meade 8" LX10 F/6.3 S.Cass and the ETX 90mm M. Cass. As luck would have it I had another reason to go N as a bulk carrier ship named THEBE (180m) was due to sail late that evening outbound to France so I figured I would film her with the drone then re-locate to shoot NEOWISE, it was going to be a very busy night. By early evening I hit the road and made good progress as I headed into Donegal on the other side of Lough Foyle, the ship sailed a little later than I expected but I ended up getting her at last light, the cloud seemed to clear for the first time in days and a soft sunset afterglow lit up the ocean and ship, as I flew the drone I watched Porpoises chasing the ship which was a marvelous sight, I took this as a good omen. I packed up the drone at 22.00 then immediately began the long drive back around the lough then to the Co. Antrim coast.

I arrived in perfect time at Ballintoy Harbour and came to a halt on a hill which faced N to NE where I had a splendid view across the ocean past Rathlin Island and Scotland, it was the perfect location to hunt a comet close to the Sun. Another car was parked in the corner, it was Brian Fullerton whom I have met several times over the years, our first encounter was back in 2012 from this very location where we watched a breathtaking aurora display with Roisin which exhibited a pulsating 'heart beat' every second, this is a very famous location and one of my favourite hunting grounds on the N coast of N. Ireland. Brian was out shooting with the camera, I set up the 5D Mark IV with Canon 100-400mm USM lens at 400mm, focused on Capella and waited. The sky was absolutely beautiful this night, it had been worth suffering all those previous overcast nights to get treated to a spectacle like this. Our Summer sky never gets dark at all, instead we have a bright lingering twilight glow which lingers all night washing out many of the stars, however this time of year offers great beauty and this night was the epitome of those classic Summer night skies.

What made it even more memorable was that sunset afterglow which formed an orange glow across the ocean which turned red on the horizon with deep blue aloft. We could make out the dark form of the bulk carrier I had filmed earlier on a new voyage with the dark outline of its hull and four cranes visible against a burning afterglow. Before midnight I scanned the skies with the 24x70mm binos and after fifteen minutes of careful sweeping I found the comet. I knew in an instant it was NEOWISE for there were no other conspicuous stars in that region of sky and furthermore this star had a tail. I was actually shocked how easy the comet stood out from such a bright sky, it really was very close to the Sun and I estimated it was less than 10 degrees above the horizon. I centered the comet in the camera's FOV and began taking short exposures at 400mm and with every passing minute the comet got better and better, the tail became longer and soon Brian and I could see it with the naked eye, at first with averted vision then soon we could hold it steady in sight no problem at all. I observed two degrees of tail without visual aid a magnitude between +1.0 and +1.5, I suspected it may even have been a fraction brighter as we were viewing it through thick atmosphere hence atmospheric extinction needed to be factored in. The view in the binos reminded me of McNaught when seen in the evening sky in 2007 however NEOWISE was actually brighter and better defined at such a similar altitude. I felt a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, after so much effort I had now bagged the comet and had it got it on camera.

NEOWISE was my 73rd comet and the best comet I had seen since Hale-Bopp in 1997, Brian and I couldn't take our eyes off it, this image is one of the many I took using an exposure of only 1 second. Look just how bright the background sky is, there's only one star visible, NEOWISE was a very bright comet indeed. As if this wasn't good enough a bright NLC display began to rapidly form in the NE, we couldn't believe our luck, with the naked eye we could see NEOWISE and the NLCs at the same time and knowing the two phenomena were intimately related added to the spectacle. The structure within the NLCs suddenly became stunning to the point were it was the best display I had witnessed all season, it seemed we were getting our rewards from nature in spectacular fashion. Normally the NLC display would steal the show and dominate our attention for the rest of the night however we confess to feeling slightly guilty for ignoring it because the comet was too special and rare, the NLCs only got afforded casual glimpses and words of awe but our eyes always returned to the ghostly form of NEOWISE hanging above that orange afterglow. I set up my Canon 600D with 18-55mm lens and began shooting a time lapse of the NLCs while I continued shooting the comet with the 5D.

Portrait image with NEOWISE showing a good 4 or 4 degrees of dust tail and now NLCs were beginning to form low in the N below the comet. Part of me wanted to witness the comet inside the NLCs however the other part of me wanted the comet to be on its own so we could enjoy an uninterrupted view.

Deep crop from another 400mm image, you can see the bifurcated tail caused by a dark division running downrange splitting the dust tail into two components. I set up the 8" and enjoyed casual views through the 26mm low power eyepiece. It was strange to see a comet against such a bright sky, the sight was almost alien, the coma was extremely condensed at DC:9 with a vivid fanning dust tail extending far beyond the telescopic field, the comet looked alive and if I'm to be honest I don't ever recall seeing such a well defined tail before, this object was entirely sharp in every detail however what made it even more remarkable was the colour. The coma and tail seemed to shine a glorious yellow-gold which was beyond description, I had observed gold in comets before such as McNaught and V1 NEAT but never to this degree of intensity, NEOWISE seemed like an unique visual experience and there was no question that this comet was putting on a show.

Imagine you are standing at a 50 million year old location over looking a calm sea on a mild Summer's night, the sky is a painting of orange and blue glowing on the sea and there isn't a breath of wind, there's nothing but silence except for the gentle stirring of the sea far below. In front of you is a golden naked eye comet with tail, you turn to your half right and you see this at the same time. The NLCs were now type 5 brightness while exhibiting spectacular structure in the form of herringbone waves being overlapped by striking almost 3D large scale whirls which to the naked eye looked like arch ways or glowing caves across the ocean horizon. The display sported silver-white and electric blue colours combined with green and orange hues, in this 5 sec exposure you can even seen rare red NLC bands to the upper right. Combine this with the comet and you have an epic night rite there, I recalled thinking how glad I was that I had made the trip as this really was the perfect experience I wanted with NEOWISE.

Now turn your head back to the N where fainter NLCs can be seen with NEOWISE aloft. A rare image of a bright comet and NLCs in the same image, this was a new 'first' for me. New data from the NEOWISE spacecraft around this time estimated that the icy nucleus at the heart of the comet was much bigger than expected at 5km in diameter, this is a very respectable size indeed and explains why the comet survived perihelion passage and why it was so active. This is about half the size of the comet which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, it's a good job NEOWISE didn't have our name on it once again because since discovery we would only have less than four months until impact, this highlights how dangerous long period comets can be and underscores that at the present moment in time there's nothing we could do in such short notice to save ourselves.

I had to include another image of the NLCs during the darkest part of the night just after 01.00, this is a still from a time lapse I shot, Brian was even getting this display on his mobile phone hand held. Summer nights are short, I reckoned we had another hour observing window with NEOWISE before the twilight began to brighten again so I decided to try more images and get a little more creative to get those special memory shots. Getting foreground with a 100-400mm lens at night is very difficult, subjects which worked routinely with wide angle lenses just don't work as the scale is all wrong at this range, using the cottage and volcanic stacks wasn't going to work so I decided to include anything at all, it was important to get that Earth and sky connection.


I wanted a comet selfie, I asked Brian to stay on the hill, then I walked down the steep road half way to the bottom and aimed the camera at the comet and Brian to get the composition I needed. I got various stills here of us pointing at the comet, observing or leaning on the car bonnet, then Brian used my camera to capture me doing the same. This was that epic moment captured for all time, a rare naked eye comet with NLCs in the Summer sky. I was getting text messages from John McConnell who was observing it from Maghaberry and a very excited call from Jonathan Bingham who was seeing it through his rich field refractor, I could tell from his voice that he was as excited as I was.

We carried the tripods down into the harbour in search of new angles. This is NEOWISE over the ancient basaltic rocks at this famous Game Of Thrones location, the comet was now receding from the Sun at some 64km/sec and getting closer to the Earth, imagine an icy mountain 5km in diameter moving at over 60 times the speed of a bullet with a huge tail of dust unfurling into space blown downrange by the unseen hand of the solar wind.

NEOWISE and life buoy at the harbour entrance, I was shooting exposures between 1 and 2 sec's at high ISOs to keep the comet frozen in the sky with as little blurring motion as possible. I was actually shocked I was getting images of a comet this clearly with a slow (F/4.5-F/5.6) zoom lens normally suited for landscapes in good light during the day, this goes to show just how bright this comet was.

Brian had to head home however I stayed for another half hour, I took this one from the hill showing the van with the comet over Rathlin Island with wisps of NLC. This road trip had been 23 years in the making, I felt honored to be standing here taking in this surreal moment, I took this wide view with the 50mm F/1.8 lens.

Just before dawn Ballintoy was empty, it was just the comet and I, the sky brightened fast until the NLCs vanished and only the brighter stars were visible yet the comet seemed to defy nature and stood out in bold relief. It was much higher in the sky in the NNE 15 degrees above the horizon, I needed to head back as I had a 1.5 hour drive ahead of me however I stayed a while longer to savour the view. I walked into the dry field beside the church and knelt down on the knee high grass and recorded live video of the comet, amazingly I was able to pick it up at high ISO with a tail, I remained silent and recorded the natural ambient sounds, I could hear a Fox calling in the distance and the passing of nocturnal birds then silence again. I took out my old 90mm ETX telescope and rested the base on a headstone inside the graveyard and had a final look at that sharp golden tail then I called it a night. I was buzzing all the way home and finally made it back to Cookstown at 04.10 BST, it was nearly daylight. Roisin woke up and I told her all about the comet and NLCs and she was happy I had such a successful night, when I drifted off to sleep I can't tell, but I needed rest because I would be heading out again the following night.

July 8th/9th - I had spent the day recharging all my camera gear, tightening tripods, cleaning lenses and editing stills and time lapse from last night's shoot, I was ready for my next meeting with NEOWISE. The comet would be higher and further NE tonight and the forecast indicated clear skies moving down from the north and reaching inland for midnight. From last night I knew the best time was 00.00 to 03.00 however the sweet spot when the comet was at its best against a slightly darker twilight background was 01.00 to 02.30 so I needed clear skies to correspond with this time period. The forecast looked promising and much more clear cut so I was not stressed out and since I had already captured the comet that sense of urgency and anxiety had now been lifted, I felt at ease and ready to get even better images. I decided after last night's long drive I would stay more local, it would be nice to capture the comet inland from the Mid-Ulster area however I really wanted foreground interest with the comet, however at 100-400mm very few subjects would work. Beaghmore and Davagh observatory wouldn't work either as the scale was wrong so I decided I would just go out on a random drive and see what the universe gave me.

I left Cookstown at 23.00 and began driving N, I scanned the fields and hills looking for foreground but nothing jumped out, 80% of the sky was covered in black flat cloud with a 20% clearance in the NNE, that clearance should be moving S according to the forecast but I noticed it was moving very slow. I stopped at the base of Slieve Gallion and pondered driving to the top however my instincts said no, there was a bizarre cap cloud over the summit and I had this feeling that cloud or mist could remain there all night long, it just had that look to it, furthermore the skew-Ts had shown a big increase in wind shear tonight, the wind was 7mph at the surface but it could be over 20mph up there, that wouldn't be a pleasant experience so I continued driving N. I began to notice that the clearance was not making its way inland at all, in fact, it had halted and I began to get worried that the forecast was badly wrong, I put my foot down and drove with intent N towards that 20% clear sector. I passed through Maghera then on a whim I took a detour and drove up to the turbines above Swatragh. It was midnight and I could see the comet with the naked eye low in the N above a bank of cloud, I grabbed images hastily and had a good view in the ETX and 8", the sky was still bright and the best view was yet to come. Then I noticed that huge bank of flat cloud covering nearly all the sky approaching slowly from the NE, the leading edge was already eating into the comet, I knew be looking at it that was going to be game over for the night, I had one chance and one chance only, race to the only remaining clear skies to the NW.

In a mad dash I got the cameras and scopes back into the van and surged NW along the dark narrow roads. This had turned into a storm chase only I was chasing clear gaps instead of cloud. It was an intense drive around tight bends and hills and dips on back roads, I just kept that clearance in view and made my way toward it, this was not rocket science but it was sheer desperation and a last minute battle to get this comet at its best, I didn't care where I ended up I just wanted the comet at any cost. I ended up passing through the village of Drumsurn in the Sperrins and emerged onto a back twisting country road to the N of town, I rounded a corner and just pulled the van in to the road side. I had clear skies ahead, to my right was the outline of a mountain, approaching it was that bank of cloud, I had found the only clear sector available this night and I reckoned I had half an hour at best before complete overcast for the rest of the night. The countryside around me was very dark, I had tall trees to my left and a hedge to my right, a gate revealed the numerous glowing eyes from Cows who took a great interest in what I was doing.

When I got out from the van I was awestruck by the sight I saw, beforehand the sky had been devoid of interest and now there was a widespread display of NLCs, it was shocking how quickly they had appeared since my last stop thirty minutes ago, the display covering the N to NE sky was of type 3.5 brightness and rich with colours, I went to grab the binos thinking it might be difficult to find the comet with such a display dominating the sky, but wait, my goodness, there was NEOWISE easily visible with the naked eye embedded within the NLCs, it was the sight of all sights, I felt like I was having a waking dream. I needed to react fast to get a record of this precious moment as I didn't have long, I set up the Canon 600D with 50mm lens in front of the van and began shooting a time lapse, this image is one of those stills showing the comet and NLCs at a wider scale, there would be no foreground interest tonight, I was just shooting what I had been presented with.

Then the 5D Mark IV with 100-400mm, 2.5 sec exposures and another time lapse sequence underway, luckily I have been feeling very sharp and in top form and wasted no time getting the gear set-up and shooting, it was like second nature to me. The view with the naked eye and on the LCD screen with the long lens was a sight I shall never forget for the rest of my life. The comet was pure gold in colour, the coma, condensation and fanning tail were pure gold, this wasn't subtle either, it was intense, this truly was a beautiful comet, then witnessing this golden apparition living within NLCs just took things to the next level, the NLCs also glowed blue, yellow and gold and the comet seemed to have an unearthly appearance within this awesome show. I was in disbelief at the side of this random road in the middle of nowhere and I really was glad I had made the effort to chase that clearance.

I saw the cloud edging in closer, both cameras were still time lapsing away faithfully, this is a crop for another 400mm exposure, I will never forget this night for as long as I live. With the naked eye I observed at least 5 degrees of gold tail spearing through the blue NLCs, I estimated the comet at mag +1.5 and a degree of condensation of 9, that's the highest value in the scale which meant the coma was entirely condensed with a sharp well defined edge similar to a planetary disk. I quickly grabbed the 8" and set it up beside the van, focused on Capella, then guided the scope onto the comet. OMG, what a sight, the coma was vivid yellow-gold with a long fanning golden tail with sharp edges on either side, I could also see streamers in the form of linear structures streaming downwind into the dust tail and the tail itself was divided in two by that blizzare dark form. The central condensation was a blazing large disk, the detail within the coma was jaw dropping, I could see hoods shaped like a gold umbrella folded back towards the direction of the tail, the inner coma had bizarre structure in the form of two or three irregularities which I took to be large jets or fountains, the entire inner coma looked like the sketches and renditions I had seen in books from great comets of the past, in particular the view reminded me of the sketches of Donati's comet seen in Carl Sagan's book 'Comet'.

As I watched through the eyepiece the golden comet slowly drifted across the FOV due to the Earth's rotation however the comet was also embedded within NLCs, as I watched I observed well defined waves and bands with electric blue colours against a veil background of yellow and green move across the field in real time in an entirely direction, the comet and NLCs overlapped like a 3D movie, I was blown away beyond belief, no images could ever do this visual scene justice. I looked up from the eyepiece and sure enough there was a golden comet with golden tail within the blue NLC display, this was the stuff of dreams, I actually felt a little emotional, bright comets can have this effect on those who observe them, the sensation is unlike anything else in nature.

For those who don't know NLCs are composed of meteoritic material which gets encased in icre crystals and in turn reflects the midnight Sun producing these beautiful glow cloud structures. Those tiny particles come from the tails of ancient comets which once passed through the inner solar system thousands or even millions of years ago so to actually see a comet and NLCs at the same time is something very special indeed. On the right hand side of this image you can see that blanket of cloud approaching and soon I was completely clouded out, it was 01.30 and in my opinion I had already seen the sight of all sights, I was overjoyed by this moment with comet NEOWISE which almost felt like a spiritual experience. I drove home over the Glenshane Pass under cloud and through drizzle which wasn't forecast, I never seen a clear gap again, I'm glad I didn't stay inland after all, I had scored two unforgettable nights of memories and if I was clouded out for a few nights I wouldn't have cared as I was more than happy. I was back home for 02.30 and once again I told Roisin all about the amazing experience of the golden comet within the NLCs.

July 9th/10th - I had really hoped to get lucky enough to catch NEOWISE for the third night in a row and I was highly confident I would, the forecast looked promising with clear spells between passing showers on an unstable NWly flow. My world had now became all about comet NEOWISE, I was obsessed, I spent my nights hunting, observing and shooting the comet and my days charging batteries, editing images and time lapse, studying weather forecasts and spending hours online making sure I was updated on the latest intelligence while admiring the thousands of images which were coming in from all over the world, I was literally living and breathing comets, the last time I was in this frame of mind was during the apparition of McNaught in 2007, I was getting less sleep at night, in fact, by the time my adrenaline eased when I came back from seeing the comet it was always between 04.30 and 05.00 and by then I was so exhausted I just passed out, sometimes with the tv remote in my hands and youtube still playing some vloggers video about the comet from another part of the world. I wasn't even catching up on lost sleep by laying in more during the morning, I was just too excited, I said to Roisin this comet was what I lived for and I was giving it my full undivided attention, after all, the comet deserved so much admiration and there would be plenty of time for me to sleep when it was gone.

Clear breaks began to form after midnight, I hit the road not actually knowing where I was going to go, some of my best nights happen on an impulse like this, it can come down to something as simple as whether I choose to go right or left when I reach the junction of our estate, this time I went left. I decided to check out Tullyhogue Ring Fort outside Cookstown, I have been there many times during daylight hours however I had always been curious what the view of the sky would be like there at night. I parked up, locked the van, grabbed two tripods and two cameras and began the walk to the fort, this is a very steep walk up hill but when carrying all this gear it was not easy, I was pumped up and just kept walking then I reached the top and took a moment to catch my breath. The view was fantastic, the sky was clear everywhere except for the low N where rows of dark cumulus seemed to pass over in lines without any gaps, typical, the only place with clouds in the sky was where NEOWISE lurked. I took in the stars and thought to myself what an amazing period this was for anyone getting into Astronomy, the sky was beautiful with plenty happening, we had NEOWISE, NLCs, the Milky Way was beginning to show, the moon was waning, the sky was getting darker, planets Jupiter and Saturn dominated the sky to the S not far from the dense star clusters and dust clouds of the Galaxy within Sagittarius, further E was Mars and before dawn Venus would appear over the horizon, there really was so much beauty, I don't ever recall a Summer night sky having so much prospect every night as this period had.

I took images of the stars over the fort, I even tried long exposures of the local factory outside town and the chapel spire however it seemed the cloud was going to win this night, the north just looked hopeless so I began to walk back down the path to the van. I opened the side door and was about to pack away the gear when an instinct told me to wait, so I did, I got the 5D and 100-400mm ready, pre-focused on Jupiter then turned to the N and watched that dark bank of cloud and waited. Suddenly, break opened in the cloud and in that break was a vivid search light beam extending upward into the sky, then it hit me, the search light beam was the tail of comet NEOWISE!, I was utterly blown away, the similarities between this and my Hale-Bopp sighting in 1997 was uncanny, this was one of the coolest sights I have ever seen in my life. I turned the camera in that direction, cloud was approaching fast, I didn't have long, I held in the cable release for 3 seconds and got this image. I never thought the day would come that I would experience anything like this again and now it just happened, I was flooded with emotions, I didn't know whether to cry or be happy, it was such an intense moment, it was like having a dream come true but one of those dreams that deep down you never actually thought would happen.

The sky clouded over however I saw breaks in the cumulus drifting my way and with every passing minute the comet was rising higher. Memorizing where the comet was in the sky I re-positioned the camera until I could frame the comet using a gap between the trees, then I waited. The cloud slowly unveiled NEOWISE and I got that very moment on camera here. The coma had not cleared the trees yet however the tail was awesome, the tail was easily 7 degrees long with the naked eye (14 apparent full moon diameters) at the very least and not only was the tail gold it was now showing curvature at its upper extremity like a sheaf of golden fire vanishing among the stars.

A few minutes later the vivid coma rose above the trees, there was no doubt in my mind that this was the best comet in 23 years, NEOWISE wins hands down, the actual NEOWISE spacraft had measured the nucleus and announced the comet was producing 10 tonnes of water per second, this was an extremely active comet. I couldn't believe the sight in the live view of the LCD screen, I took some video of this moment with my mobile and did a short vlog describing what I saw then stood back, got dark adapted and had one last naked eye look. It was a prized memory, I only wish my mate Conor McDonald had been here beside me to see this one for many a conversation we had over the years about bright comets, I was star struck.

Another exposure which I have cropped to the rule of thirds, I love the striking gold coma and tail with bifurcated split then the rolling wave of cloud on the right hand side. The image looks more like a painting, the tree tops and clouds show motion blur due to the breeze and the comet is being viewed in a sky full of water droplets associated with shower clouds, I gave this one a push in contrast to make it pop out more, however none of these come close to capturing the naked eye sight which to me looked like a stationary alien sign brushed onto the pre-dawn sky.

The clouds filled in yet again for the rest of the night, I had perhaps five minutes in total viewing the comet but they were the finest five minutes ever. I went back to bed and for the third night in a row I chatted with Roisin about what I had experienced, I described all about the golden search light beam rising over the trees and how I felt like my dreams had come true, I even showed her my phone snap from the back of the screen, we chatted all about comets and how they give life and take life, I chatted about their role in the formation of life on Earth including how comets brought a percentage of the Earth's oceans to our planet and how impacts have wiped out entire species and altered the course of evolution, if a comet or asteroid had not wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago when we wouldn't be here today, then I passed into a sudden deep sleep.

July 10th/11th - Friday night and with the promise of clear breaks everyone was heading out to see NEOWISE, comet fever had struck and social media was full of comet updates and images. On youtube there was a prolific amount of vlogs on the comet and the comet even made headline news all across the world which was amazing. On a personal level I was receiving so many emails to the web site and messages on social media that I found it difficult to keep up however I tried my best to answer them all even if my response was short. Most people were new to comets and wanted to know when was the best time to look, some even wanted advice on buying new telescopes and others wanted guidance on where to be for the best chance of clear skies, it really was a full-on period. A photo shoot was arranged and this time I would be joining forces with John Fagan from Dungannon and Paul Martin from Omagh, our plan was to meet at midnight at a local lake, the goal was to capture the comet over the water with reflections, or simply get it over the tops of trees for a sense of scale, we had a location sourced out and we were ready to go.

John and I decided to meet first then make our way to the lake, I drove out before midnight then pulled into a filling station on the main Omagh Road, I waited for John to arrive. A clearance had already formed low in the N so wasting not time I got the 5D and 100-400mm lens set up, focused, and got my first images of the night. What shocked me was how bright the comet looked and how the tail was in such bright twilight compared with this same time last night, it looked even more striking, I couldn't wait for that sweet period after 01.00 to arrive to catch it at its best. This image is 400mm with the comet framed between the trees within the service area. John arrived and was out like a rocket, I switched on live view so John could see the comet in real time, this was his first sighting, I let John attach his camera to the 100-400mm and he got his first images, we were both buzzing, the PSNI even pulled in for a chat wondering what we were doing then once satisfied we were not up to no good they wished us luck. Cloud began to fill in rapidly with only small gaps low in the sky, we couldn't believe it, where had that come from?, it looked like further W was even worse in the direction of the lake, I text Paul to let him know then we decided to hit the road and move N and E as the sky looked more promising there.

We ended up at Beaghmore Stone Circles, the sky was still cloudy however we set up the cameras and I got out the 8" telescope and we waited. The air was calm and mild, after a period of great patience on our part the sky began to clear over a large area, except the comet remained behind clouds the entire time. Then before 02.00 small breaks appeared and during fleeting seconds we could see the comet with the naked eye, a larger gap followed and I was ready for it. The comet was further from the Sun, the background twilight was darker and moon had waned so the comet seemed to jump out from the sky, it looked absolutely gorgeous.

The comet was playing peekabo from behind the clouds and this seemed to enhance the comet's presence even more, one moment it was there, the next it was gone, then a full minute of glory then back behind cloud again. I was still using the 1000-400mm at 400m F/5.6 at ISO6400 and even 12800 and all on a static tripod at 02.00 in the morning, this is a testament to how bright this comet was, I've never got a 400m image of a comet using this set-up in my life. The fine dark division within the dust tail can be seen, the tail is curving to the upper right and if you look carefully within the dust tail you can see hints of structure like lines or streaks, these are synchronic bands which often appear in bright dust-rich comets, the best example in modern times was the peak cock tail on McNaught, but now NEOWISE had these structures too. The left side of the dust looks darker and sharp, this because the gas or ion tail is running parallel to the dust tail on this side, look carefully and you can see the straight blue type 1 ion tail. CCD images from other imagers were capturing an amazing show rite now from darker skies.

I ventured into the stone circles in search of foreground, I managed to frame the comet over the trees within this ancient location, the passing cloud added to the scene, it was like a living painting. This was a 4 second exposure hence the longer star trails, this was one of those times I wish I had invested in a tracker. I got a text from Paul, he was at the lake and watching the comet and described it as 'deadly', I was delighted Paul was seeing it too.

What a sight from Beaghmore, a gold mag +1.5 comet with 7 degrees of golden dust tail, I shot this in portrait configuration to show more of the tail, I ended up getting John to do me a print of this scene which I now have framed and hanging with pride on the wall. Once happy we had got good images we raced back to the telescope for a final look before dawn, the view was splendid with a multitude of gas streams and jets issuing from the inner coma. John and I packed away the gear and soaked up the experience, we chatted at length about the comet, it was obvious both of us were buzzing, I made it back home for 03.40, these late nights home seemed to be the norm now.

Please check out page two for more NEOWISE adventures - PAGE 2


Martin McKenna

Sky Events Now

Observing Sessions

Storm Chasing