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Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE From Northern Ireland - Page 2


“Comets are like cats: they have tails,

and they do precisely what they want”...David H. Levy


July 11th/12th - this would be my fifth night in a row documenting NEOWISE and I have to admit that after all the late nights and adrenaline I was starting to get a hint of that 'burned out' feeling creeping in, however I was on a tremendous flow and enjoying the buzz and if there was a chance of clear skies at all I was intent on observing this comet as much as possible. The sky didn't look very encouraging to be honest with high level cloud however the television forecast was highly confident of a clearance moving in from the SW around midnight so I decided that staying inland and even moving a little SW to meet that clearance would be the best bet. A plan was arranged to meet in Co. Tyrone with Paul Martin and his partner Tracy Sharkey, we decided to meet in Omagh for 23.30 then make our way to an old church outside town where Paul and I had shot one night under the stars several years ago, perhaps the comet and church might make for an interesting combination.

We arrived in the car park beside the Church, it was evident that the angle of the church wouldn't work for NEOWISE however the church grounds did offer a perfect clear horizon to the N so we decided we would commit ourselves to this occasion and stay for the night. Cameras were mounted on tripods, the telescope was set-up and several pairs of binoculars were getting passed around. The sky had that hazy look to it from high level cloud however there were clear sectors moving in, the planets were out in force however the comet was still hidden behind a strip of high level cloud, as we waited two PSNI patrol cars kindly checked in on us to make sure you we were safe, it was the eleventh night after all and anything could happen, but a part from a few passing cars and distant shouting which faded away we were content. Despite our patience we were beginning to get frustrated by the cloud and I know I wasn't the only one thinking that by the time this slow moving high cloud passed it could be dawn, then from out of the dark shadows a kitten appeared, it seemed to come out from nowhere and took a big liking to us, it ended up staying up with us all night, the cat would curl its tail around my legs and tripod, it was the most friendly cat I have ever encountered. I said to Paul and Tracy that this was a good omen, the presence of the cat immediately brought to mind David Levy's quote about comets and cats (below main title), this was a very encouraging sign.

It was one of those classic warm Summer nights with not a breath of wind, Tracy was testing out her new mirrorless camera which Paul got her for Christmas, she was taking her own first night images and getting used to the camera, then after a test exposure she was the first of us to pick up the comet, then the night's action was underway, the cloud thinned and the comet rose higher, it was time to shoot. We got tantalizing glimpses of a golden tail emerging at an angle from wisps of cloud, the tail was as sharp as a razor, we began taking images then grabbed the cameras and headed into the grounds around the church.

The graveyard was dark and silent and bone dry, all three of us wandered off lost in our own thoughts as we settled in among the headstones and paths to get a good angle on the comet. I went to the rear of the church and ended up in a pitch black corner, focused the 400mm and took this exposure of NEOWISE which had just rose from that hazy veil of cloud. The comet was vivid gold with the naked eye, I kept alternating between the view on the LCD screen and the naked eye scene in front of me, it was one of those moments which will always stay with me, one of those nights when you are living your dream and nothing can go wrong, the world was perfect and life was perfect, I felt in complete peace and happiness and had that warm internal buzz from seeing something marvelous from nature, I was crouched in darkness between silent graves with ancient trees either side of me and in front was NEOWISE, time seemed to stand still, nothing else mattered, this was perfection. In this 4.2 second exposure you can actually see synchronic bands filling the dust tail.

We met up at the side of the church and compared images then went off once more to do our own thing. Amazingly that cat had followed us into the graveyard and was still wrapping it's tail around our legs. I crouched between the headstones and switched over to the 50mm F/1.8 lens for a wider perspective and framed the rising comet between these two big trees at the rear of the graveyard, I really love this scene. That orange glow is not light pollution, it was actually a vivid sunset afterglow which lingered during the middle part of the night, the combination of orange sky and dark trees reminded me of an African sunset skyscape,and to have a comet with gracefully curving tail sitting among the stars made this a wonderful moment. The view on camera reminded me of a miniature version of great comet C/1858 L1 Donati.

Another 50mm exposure cropped. We went back to the car park and got water and snacks, the cat was still with us and at times jumped inside my van and walked around as if it owned the place. Tracy surprised us with a box of fresh doughnuts which she had got from a bakery, my sugar levels were getting low so I welcomed the boost in energy, I choose a large dark looking doughnut which turned out to be nuts and salted caramel and chocolate, it was hands down the best doughnut I have ever tasted in my life, thanks Tracy, that went down well. By this time NEOWISE had rose higher and was now fighting through less haze and atmospheric extinction, it was then that I was shocked to see 10 degrees of naked eye tail, at least, I measured the visible tail with my outstretched hand and kept getting the 10 degree length multiple times, I was blown away, that's 20 apparent full moon diameters, furthermore the dust tail could be seen curving to the east and with averted vision the tail hinted of being even longer. Keep in mind we were seeing this in a twilight sky which never got dark and through light haze, this comet from a dark sight must have been even more spectacular. The tail seemed to fade into the background sky like a the ghost of a tracer among the hand full of 4th and 5th magnitude stars to the NE of Capella.

During the short dark window period of the night the comet seemed to come alive, we were shocked how it seemed to get better and better despite the advancing glow of pre-dawn, we kept saying we got it at its best and will hit the road but we couldn't leave as it was just too good so we stayed and took images and observed. We had christened the cat 'NEO' after the comet, while I was kneeling down and holding the cable release in hand the cat climbed up my legs and sat on my lap purring away, it was such a nice feeling, I felt like I should taken NEO home with me, he was actually on my lap when I took this exposure.

Last image before dawn, I shot a short time lapse sequence of this scene, then for one weird moment we saw a transparent beam of light to the right of the comet going vertical upwards, what was that? it looked like there were two comet tails in the sky one beside the other, I took a short exposure to reveal it was actually a vertical NLC structure, that was such a bizarre scene.

Memory image, 15mm on full frame showing the church, morning twilight, mid level cloud approaching from the right lit by light pollution and on the far left of the frame near the tree was NEOWISE. That was yet another amazing night with this comet, we were all buzzing but tired and began the drive home, as I passed over the high ground of the scenic landscape either side of the Seven Sisters lakes I saw pools of white mist sitting in the valleys and even passing knee-deep across the road with stars above and golden planet Venus above the eerie mist, I was back in bed for 04.00 after yet another comet memory.

"When beggars die there are no comets seen;

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes"...William Shakespeare


July 18th/19th - On July 15th Roisin's Father Cyril passed away suddenly in hospital, Cyril was a lovely man, one of the best and was loved by many people, I never met a person so kind and helpful, he was the kind of person that no matter what else was going on in life you always felt calm and at ease in his presence. The night after the funeral Roisin wanted to get away and in particular she wanted to go to the ocean and see comet NEOWISE, the forecast looked good for clear skies so we hit the road at sunset. Roisin was intent on being at the Giant's Causeway for back in 2013 we had a nice memory standing on the famous Causeway rocks with C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS above us, we decided we would try this scene again with NEOWISE and that I would get a special image of the comet to dedicate to Cyril, and besides, I wanted Roisin to experience the comet with me.

We arrived at the Causeway during evening twilight, we had clear skies inland and for the entire journey to the coast but beside the ocean there was a stubborn slow moving bank of cloud in the way. In the meantime I set up the 8" and made it ready, a Mother and Son where also nearby and came over to chat about astronomy, they had drove from Broughshane in the hope of seeing NEOWISE, I pointed out the ISS and bright star Altair and had a general chat about the night sky. I saw a break in the clouds drifting to the right and knew in a few minutes it would intersect the position of the comet low in the N, the gap appeared, I guided the scope on the comet and there it was in the eyepiece with multicolored head sporting a combination of gas and dust features, I pointed out I had the comet and could already see it with the naked eye, the Mother and Son ran over and got their first look at a comet in a telescope, it clouded over again. Roisin and I decided to move location, we were considering driving ten miles inland under better clear skies, our plans of getting the comet over cool foreground were gone now but the mission had changed to just getting an image at all to make this night work.

As we drove along the coastal route the sky cleared again and this time the clearance was much more promising so we stopped at the first place which presented itself and that was Dunluce Castle, one of our favourite castles in the country. We got the gear ready fast, almost being mindful that the sky could cloud over again at any moment, then made our way towards the castle, Roisin said getting the comet over the castle was a must, I agreed. However once we approached the entrance the gate had been pad locked due to Covid-19, so Roisin or anyone else couldn't get into the grounds. This was frustrating but Roisin encouraged me to get the image anyway so I climbed over the tall stone wall and landed in the grounds carrying two tripods and cameras and made my way towards the castle, when I got within range a new fence had been put up blocking me from getting any closer to the castle, the fence was well over waste high with metal bars or spikes, I could have cleared if it I was intent but with wet ground and carrying this gear in the dark it was a risky proposition so I took several exposures of the comet over the castle in portrait mode which I won't share on here as they are simply not good enough. Our exciting plans had fallen by the side and to be honest I cursed the National Trust, it was impossible to get a good night image of the castle anymore without going over that fence and the fence itself should have been taken down a long time ago, it was obvious that Dunluce was no longer a good location to do night photography anymore which is a shame as we have many good memories from there and feel a deep connection with the castle. I climbed back over the wall in a huff and felt like this night was against me, it just felt like nothing was going rite.

We had no choice but to make the most of our situation and get something for the memory, to be honest I was getting agitated and there was nothing to work with here at all and the night was too short to go elsewhere and besides it was already clear now. I decided to use the wall beside the castle, simple scene with us in the frame looking at the comet to get that Earth and sky connection. I attached the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 and the jinx from this night continued to hold me back, both tripods were loose and wobbling and even shook in the wind, no matter what clamp I tightened it made no difference then the three tripod legs kept collapsing, I felt the pressure to get a result and this rushed mind set was not helping, then I couldn't seem to focus on the stars, no matter what bright star I tried I seemed to struggle to get a pin point result, I felt so frustrated and at one point I felt like throwing the camera over the wall, I actually think I was cursing out loud a few times too and there was another photographer within close range, he probably thought I was a nutter. I took a deep breath and composed the scene and took a series of exposures on continuous shooting so that way we could move about and try different compositions as the camera worked away. Roisin and I now settled ourselves and watched the comet as a low elevation NLC display formed.

Standing on the wall for this one, nice memory, it was a cold windy night at the coast and not pleasant during the gusts hence why we were wrapped up, such a contrast to the calm mild nights I had experienced NEOWISE in before. I could see 15 degrees of dust tail with the naked eye, that's 30 apparent full moon diameters, the tail swept upward trough the west paw of the Great Bear in Ursa Major, in this short exposure you can see the fainter blue ion tail to the left of the dust tail. It was only later when I got home did I notice that the stars on these images were not even focused points of light, I either didn't focus correctly or I nudged the tripod when I was frantically moving around in a rush in the dark, also I see that the left side of the images are much softer than the right side, it looks like the expensive 24-70mm lens is out of alignment, it's now a paper weight in my office.

A memory shot of NEOWISE and me, you can imagine how long I've waited for a moment like this, just to look up at such a bright comet with ease, no telescopes required, no star charts or going through the ephermides for RA and DEC positions to hunt down a new comet, this was what's all about rite here, I live for moments like this. This image is actually a stack of two exposures at 70mm, on camera NEOWISE actually looked like C/1975 V1 WEST.

We went back to the van, warmed up, calmed down, ate a snack, then went back outside. I set up the 8" so Roisin could see the comet for the first time in a telescope, she noted vibrant green colours from gas emissions inside the coma and said it looked beautiful. She suggested using the telescope with her in it for foreground interest, this was a great idea and to be honest it saved the night. I used the 50mm F/1.8 lens and short exposure with the 600D, I now absolutely love this scene, it's a very simple image but very effective, it captures the essence of astronomy and the night sky and the wonder and mystery we well feel when a bright comet appears in our skies, I even shot a short time lapse of this moment which turned out very well.

While the going was good I used the 5D and 100-400mm lens to get a closer view of NEOWISE, now sitting among the circumpolar stars with pride, I reckon it knew that every eye, camera, and telescope across the world was gazing on it this very moment. Ion/gas/plasma tail on left, curving dust tail on right with suggestion of delicate detail within, both tails extending beyond the top of the frame, and that green cynogen coma also present which Roisin observed in the telescope. I decided that this was the image I would dedicated to Roisin's Father, I actually took six untracked exposures and stacked them together to reduced noise, the result was a very nice scene indeed. I annotated the image, quoted the day of Cyril's passing and that he had ascended to the stars, the official name of C/2020 F3 NEOWISE was mentioned and to the upper right was the comet and Prince's quote from William Shakespeare, we got several copies printed and even on canvas for the family.

After all our rushing we got the image we wanted and had our special moment together with the comet and Roisin got her ocean air she had been craving. We began the long drive home under clear skies with Jupiter and Saturn visible through the windscreen as we drove south then made it back to Cookstown for 04.00, we actually sat up for a while, had a brew and went through the images and chatted about comets then drifted away into a happy peaceful sleep.

July 19th/20th - The following night looked good for clear skies, I had been thinking earlier how awesome it would be to use a sky tracker on the comet, that way I could take longer exposures at 400mm with no trailing and stack them for a much more dramatic result. To cut a long story short Paul Martin offered to lend me his Ioptron Sky Tracker, this was very kind of him, I met Paul near Omagh earlier in the evening, Paul explained how to set it up, I had never used a tracker before and it seemed quite involved, especially with the polar alignment however I was given a crash course and the instruction manual then headed back home. I had just time to get a snack and scan through the user manual before it was time to head out. I had no idea where to go so I headed out in the direction of Beaghmore, I wasn't thinking of foreground, just somewhere peaceful where I could try out the tracker in an open area away from people. As I approached the area the sky was 80% cloud and thicker cloud seemed to be approaching from the NW over the Sperrins, I couldn't believe it, the forecast promised clear skies tonight, yet it was the complete opposite, I knew that once that cloud came in it was game over for the rest of the night.

There would be no time to try the tracker tonight, I just wanted some foreground interest, anything, I ended up on the dark roads between Beaghmore and Davagh and suddenly had a brain wave. Roisin and I where on this very road a few weeks ago and Roisin noticed a beautiful isolated tree in a field which looked like a fairy tree, it was on its own and surrounded by flat fields and a good open view of the sky, I thought that would make for a cool scene for a night shot sometime. Now was the time to try it out, I saw its dark silhouette against the twilight sky to my left and squeezed the van into the side of the road, climbed over a gate, did a sweep with the torch to make sure there where no Cows or Bulls waiting for me, then made my way into the huge field. The tree was awesome, I used the 50mm F/1.8 lens then backed up to the far end of the field, it actually took quite a lot of trial and error to get the tree and comet in such a small FOV, I was half way down a grass slope and finally got the composition I wanted.

I remember thinking it isn't even dark yet, this was still bright twilight and the comet was looking great in such a short exposure, I couldn't wait to after 01.00 when it should look striking over this tree. I then saw a bank of black clouds approach, a huge blanket with no clear sky behind it and with it came the realization I was going to be clouded out the rest of the night in a few minutes. I took perhaps five exposures then I was clouded out, it wasn't even midnight. I was very happy with the final image in the twilight, NEOWISE in Summer twilight over a fairy tree within this ancient site in Co. Tyrone, this one image made my night. NEOWISE had lost its golden hue and now looked like a white exclamation mark among the stars, my comet estimate was mag +2.1 with a tail still in the 15 degree range. Once it clouded over I went back to the van, I leaned on the bonnet and took in the night. It was mild and absolutely silent, I heard the faint trickle from a stream but other than that it was pure silence, it was remarkable how quiet the countryside was, complete bliss, I basked in peace for 20 minutes then made my way back home, the forecast had been wrong once again but my night was not in vain, the gamble had paid off.

July 23rd/24th - I had been clouded out for four nights in a row, during which time NEOWISE grew larger in the sky with CCD images showing two huge tails despite the fact that the comet was receding from the Sun. This was the night when NEOWISE was at it's closest to Earth at just over 100 million km and I was eager to see it, in fact, those five nights of cloud seemed like a life time ago and I will admit that I was honestly missing the comet, it had become a part of my life and I felt a very strong connection with the new visitor. The forecast indicated clear spells inland however given the Met Office track record in recent times I was even skeptical of that. It was my intention to use Paul's sky tracker this night, I wasn't thinking about foreground or telescopes, I just wanted my first comet image using a tracking mount.

The sky cleared during twilight and I headed out extra early into the Co. Tyrone countryside, this time I decided I would give Beaghmore Stone Circles a go, the reason being it offered a good open space, decent northern horizon and the terrain was relatively flat which would aid with the alignment process. I grabbed both camera bags, tracker, tripod and long lens and walked into the corner of the complex and set-up inside one of the smaller stone circles. The night was calm, dry, mild and quiet, I was the only person there, which surprised me to be honest. In the clearance I spotted NEOWISE immediately as a fuzzy star with a streak located within the eastern paw of the Great Bear, for anyone who knows the stars it was an easy catch as that region of sky had that 'something wrong' look to it as if a fuzzy Nova had broken the well known symmetry of that star field which had been put to memory for over twenty years. I did notice that NEOWISE was the shadow of its former self, it was a completely different comet from what I had seen a week ago, it had faded to mag +4.0 and was less obvious to the untrained eye. I was swapping text messages with John Fagan who was also observing it through a telescope from home who said the same thing, I actually replied saying this was no longer a comet for the public unless they had guidance on where to look and binoculars was now the best way to appreciate it its beauty.

I busied myself setting up the tracker, balanced, level, I only got a very rough polar alignment however I reckoned it would be enough. I attached the 100-400mm on the tracker at 100mm F/4.5 with the Canon 600D crop sensor, I decided to use my older camera this time because it mates much better with this lens than the full frame. I set up the 5D with 15mm lens and began shooting a time lapse of the northern sky while I messed around with the tracker. After 01.00 I got a shock and I took back everything I said to John about the comet not being an object for the public. Since I had sent that message time had passed, a cloud had positioned itself over the comet for a long time and the sky had grown darker, in fact, the darkest yet since NEOWISE rounded the Sun, then breaks formed and a decent clearance opened up revealing both paws of the Bear, I had obtained keen dark adaption and suddenly the comet appeared and when it did I was shocked. The comet was absolutely gorgeous, with averted vision I could see the tail extending for 20 degrees (40 apparent full moon diameters), I was amazed, the tail was a transparent ghostly well defined shaft of light with well defined edges which shot upward at an angle from the paw into the centre of the Plough asterism, not only that but I could see what appeared to be ion streamers on the left side of the tail with the naked eye, the entire sight looked like a compact version of Hyakutake from 1996, once again this comet blew me away, that straight tail like a slanted auroral ray going up from the horizon was another scene I will never forget, one of many epic moments from this comet. The above image is 15mm extreme wide angle showing the comet with the tracker working its magic.

This was the result of the tracker, six 100mm F/4.5 stills at ISO1600 with exposure times of 50 seconds each stacked using sequador. You can see the fanning dust tail, ion tail and green colour on the sunward side of the coma. I wish I had taken longer exposures and I intended on zooming into 400mm for the next sequence but cloud once again became a problem and the lens was soaked in dew. I heard several visitors arrive late in the night, from what I could hear it sounded like a family out looking for the comet, I could near the Mother explaining to her Son where Ursa Major was, it was fabulous to see the comet generating so much interest in the night sky. Later before dawn I shot a 50mm time lapse of the comet tail above sweeping horizon cloud and a young couple arrived and walked in beside me, the place was absolutely silent, I heard the couple gently whispering and exchanging glances through binoculars at the comet, I have to say I greatly admired their respect for the sky, they barely made a sound at all. Behind me to the south Jupiter and Saturn made for a spectacular pairing NE of Sagittarius like two beacons in the sky, Juipter even sported a colourful corona at one stage while the dust clouds of the Milky Way seemed more striking than ever, it really was a superb sky this night, I felt at peace then packed the gear away and headed home for the night, I wondered, considering the long term forecast, would I ever see it again.

July 28th/29th - The Northern Ireland weather struck once again with almost a week of cloudy weather then at last a clear night was on the cards. NEOWISE was now leaving in the inner solar system and getting further from both the Earth and Sun every day and I knew that soon it would be gone forever. The rapid fading combined with the comet's drop is altitude would soon make it a difficult catch using modest tripod mounted DSLR set-ups, I wasn't expecting much, I just wanted to see it again and get one last image for the record and to say farewell to NEOWISE because based on the long term forecast this genuinely could be my last chance for 6,800 years.

I decided to shoot it from Davagh Forest where the new OM Dark Sky Observatory is located, it felt only fitting that my last observation should be from this location which will become infamous within the astronomical world in the future. I arrived at the car park within Davagh Forest, of course clear skies were not easy come by, instead of widespread clear spells I was getting gaps then cloud covering the sky again for twenty minutes then another brief clearing. This situation was balanced more towards the cloud end of things so I decided to rule out a time lapse or even setting up the tracker as the clear breaks were too swift, it would be stills only. I was lucky to get any, I parked along the main forest trail and got the van on the grass then got the camera set up with 50mm F/1.8 lens and waited. A brief clearance opened up, I could see NEOWISE just above the tree tops as a faint hazy naked eye star and a straight wisp of tail extending to the upper left, I managed to get several short exposures, the above is one of them. My quick guesstimate was mag +4.2, the cynogen green coma looked striking in the exposure, this would have made for a cool time lapse but I was happy just to get this last departing image of the comet which has brought me so much happiness. I would never seen NEOWISE again.

This brings a closure to my first two page image report in a long time and my finest astronomical memories in years. It has been a long wait for a proper naked eye comet however the wait has been worth it. Was NEOWISE a 'great comet'?, the answer to this in my opinion is no, however it came very close to getting into this category. There's no official criteria which can determine if a comet has become great, the answer is usually quite obvious when you see a great comet, there are however certain ingredients for the great crown such as a large and active nucleus, a close approach to the Sun or Earth, being easily visible to the naked eye or having a prominent tail, also its elongation from the Sun and hence visibility region also play a crucial role. Some argue that if a comet is seen by many across the world then it has to be great, this was certainly true with Hale-Bopp however consider comet WEST in 1976 which was missed by the public and many astronomers during its brief morning apparition, this one wasn't well observed, partly because it was a morning object and also because of the publicity and subsequent let down from comet Kohoutek which preceded WEST, the media didn't want to be fooled again, but WEST was a true great comet and one of the best in the last one hundred years.

NEOWISE may be one of the most photographed comets in modern times along with Hale-Bopp and McNaught, there is no question about this, NEOWISE also had a large active nucleus and a striking high contrast dust tail, it was an easy sight for trained observers and even for the majority of the public who knew where to look. Some have called NEOWISE ''a really good comet'', others have said it was a ''mini great comet'', I have seen quite heated discussion taking place in public with some wanting NEOWISE to earn the great title but with older comet observers hammering home the nail in the coffin in the debate comparing it with true great comets they have witnessed in the past, there's perhaps even some northern hemisphere bias to the arguments, after all, we have waited so long so leave us alone, we have earned our great comet. I have read all these arguments with great interest.

To me all comets are special and all comets are great, NEOWISE was a magnitude +1.0 to +1.5 object, this certainly was within the great category however there was only thing which held comet back from earning the great title and this was it's elongation from the Sun. During its finest moments the comet was lurking within a very bright twilight sky and low on the horizon, the brilliance of this visitor was obscured both by twilight and atmospheric extinction, and yet there it was visible to the naked eye complete with tail showing off with glee, this comet wanted to be seen. In my personal opinion had NEOWISE been visible against a slightly darker sky background and hence at a more favorable elongation there would have been no doubt that this would have been a great comet.

I hope you got to see this comet yourself and maybe you have introduced NEOWISE to your family and Children, if you have then I hope they will always remember the experience and perhaps for some of them it will be the spark which introduced them to Astronomy and perhaps develop into a life long passion for comets. NEOWISE has been a blessing in my life and even as I write this weeks after its apparition I'm still buzzing, I firmly believe that NEOWISE has ended the comet drought in the northern hemisphere and has set the stage for the next great comet to take us by surprise. The above video is a tribute to NEOWISE featuring all my real time video footage, time lapse sequences and still images into one complete memory, thanks very much for watching.

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Martin McKenna

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