If there is one class of celestial object that I love more than anything else in the sky and which has been completely responsible for changing my life and getting me interested in astronomy and everything else which followed in my life then without question it would be comets. I can recall the media attention surrounding the return of 1P/Halley back in 1986 and was swept up in comet fever hoping to see this legendary object, I can still remember the television news that evening informing viewers of where to look in the sky, that night as soon as darkness fell my neighbours and I all gathered outside at the back of the house in the chilly air hoping to see it in all it's glory, however with none of us having any observing experience or having seen a comet before we had no idea of what to expect and in my naive eight year old mind I was half expecting to see a flaming star with tail shoot across the starry sky however after a long wait we saw nothing and headed back in doors and soon the comet was forgotten about, this was my first comet related memory.
The next comet related event arrived when I was 16 in July 1994 when comet Shoemaker-Levy9 impacted planet Jupiter in what is now known as the most violent and catastrophic event ever witnessed by mankind. Even though the comet was never visible with the naked eye I still followed the exciting news being covered by the media, I have a fond recollection of sitting in my bedroom on a wonderful warm Summer's evening with the sun shinning through the window onto the bed clothes as I sat enthralled on my swivel chair watching the live coverage on T.V and feeling completely engrossed, I knew this event was important and exciting however little did I know back then how important the work of David Levy, Gene, and Caroline Shoemaker would have in my later life and although I didn't feel it immediately the subject of comets had already made an impact and would manifest itself in a passion which would drive me all through adult life.
Things really took off for me at the age of 19 when I already had developed an interest in astronomy and yet again a comet would play a major role in my life, only this time I would get to see a comet with my own eyes. C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp became what is known as a 'great comet' and the media attention it received was unreal and comet fever had once again returned to the world and this time it was well deserved. This comet was very bright and easily visible with the naked eye for a staggering 15 months and would become the most observed comet of modern times thanks to it being very well placed high in the sky during it's peak. Barely a night would go by without some coverage on the news and I was once again swept up in all the excitement with newspaper cuttings bluetacked to my bedroom wall so I could read them and wonder about the comet before I went to sleep at night, there were articles about the origins of comets and media diagrams comparing the size of the comet's 40km wide nucleus with major cities like London and New Work for scale and artist renditions of the end of the world showing what would happen if it had hit Earth, I recall being captivated by the image showing a mile high Tsunami smashing through the skyscrapers of a US city and feeling a combination of awe and fear if that were to happen in my life time.
At an unknown date I accidentally saw Hale-Bopp, the first time my eyes had ever seen a real comet and to this day it was a sight that I have not seen matched since. It happened outside Maghera in the Slaughtneil area deep in the dark countryside where there was no light pollution at all. I was catching up with an old friend and due to the engrossed nature of our conversation we had forgotten how late it was and a quick look at my watch informed me it was 04.00, we got out from the car to stretch our legs, the night was freezing cold with a frost on the ground and all around us the stars twinkled against a black sky, the pre-dawn Winter stars really were incredible and we took the time to take it all in as we shivered and chatted to each other in a whisper as our breath turned to a milky white cloud in the air. We where just about to get back in the car and go home when I turned around and glanced to the NE when I suddenly got a shock, what the hell was that?, there, low in the sky, and climbing higher with every passing minute was something I couldn't explain, a bright striking ghostly form was sitting stationary in the sky above the dark outline of the trees which left me awestruck, at first I thought was this a UFO?, my friend and I looked at it for longer then at each other shrugging our shoulders wondering what was going on. I honestly thought my eyes were playing tricks and if it wasn't for my friend standing beside me seeing the same thing I would have never believed it for it looked to all the world like a torch beam among the stars with it's shaft of light pointing upwards at a 45 degree angle seemingly from the very depths of space. My friend suddenly broke our trance and figured out what it was, this was comet Hale-Bopp and that search beam was its incredible tail, talk about a jaw dropping first encounter with a comet. The primeval sensations I felt when I first set eyes on this ancient object no doubt would have been similar to what ancient observers would have felt when confronted with the sight of a sudden new comet in the sky, I felt a powerful sensation of awe and fear. This single event would later change the entire direction of my life and I would never look back.
Three years later on May 1st 2000 at the age of 22 I began searching for new comets, a quest which would occupy me for more than 10 years and during that time I logged over 1300 hours of comet hunting. I became obsessed with comets during this period and read everything I could about these mysterious objects, I'm pretty sure I have read just about everything that was available on comets, comet hunting, and historical accounts of great comets and it seemed that I even began dreaming about them. Between then and as I write this today I have observed 57 comets (list) from naked eye gems down to faint patches of mist which were a challenge even in a 16" telescope. Hale-Bopp was always the Grand Daddy for me and all future comets would be compared to this king of the giants and as the years went on I always lived in hope that some day I would get to witness another great comet like that in my life time. My comet searching years taught me a lot about the art of comet observing and where to hunt for them and to appreciate the beauty of these celestial stallions galloping through the inner solar system.
No comet ever matched my life changing moment of 1997 however I do love every comet I see and some stand out above others due to their own striking beauty our because of a particular memory they invoke, I will mention a few of these below...
1) 2P/Encke, I was searching before comets in the NE before dawn on a warm Summer's night in 2000, I had searched all night long without finding a single fuzzy object and was questioning my ability, I took a break away from the eyepiece and took in the sky, the birds were singing and the twilight glow was very bright and many stars were now washed away by the approaching dawn, a large Owl silently flew low over my head which brought my wandering mind back into focus then I began another sweep very close to the sun, I was barely seeing any stars and was about to call it a night when a comet suddenly appeared in the field of view, I couldn't believe my luck, it was bright, fuzzy, elongated with a tail and even had a hint of pink or red colour with subtle green, for a moment I thought I had discovered a new comet however an excited check through the latest edition of Sky & Telescope magazine using my red torch showed it was Encke's comet, this was the first time I had 'discovered' a comet while comet hunting, I never forgot that surge of adrenalin and how my body shook with excitement, I was hooked.
2) 153P/Ikea-Zhang, Feb/March 2002, I had seen other faint comets and a few faint naked eye comets since my Encke find however it wasn't until 2002 when I would get that sudden thrill of being surprised by a bright comet. One evening I began comet hunting from my backgarden, I had decided to start very low in the S/SW near Cetus and work my way up however it being such a calm cold night I was getting beaten by mist and LP which blocked most of the stars in the telescope so I shifted my search box a little higher and continued on and spent a happy 2.5 hour hunt covering a large region of sky. Shock arrived a few days later when the discovery of Ikeya-Zhang was announced by two well known Japanese comet hunters, first of all it was an amateur discovery which was exciting enough then came the second shock, it was discovered in the same region of sky where I had been hunting a few days earlier, in fact, it was discovered exactly in the same area within Cetus where I had begun hunting however I had to adjust my search area due to the mist in that low area of sky, talk about a close call, if the sky had been more transparent that evening then perhaps I would have co-discovered this comet!.
The orbit indicated this comet would brighten rapidly and I began to follow it each night. Through my 8" telescope it looked like a large grey circular patch of light then came a period of cloudy weather, a few nights later the sky had cleared and the stars were amazing so I decided to check in on Ikeya-Zhang and when I did I got my third shock, no longer was there a patch of light in the field of view but in place was a fully mature amazing comet complete with highly condensed coma and a long brilliant tail extending away beyond the field, I couldn't believe the transformation and the sudden thrill almost caused me to fall off my observing chair. This comet turned into a fine object and to date it remains my favourite comet since H-B, I could see it easily with the naked eye every evening in the W from my dark location complete with naked eye tail, this really did look like the way a comet should look and I admit to being deeply impressed by its performance. In the telescope I observed streamers, jets, kinks, knots and tail disconnection events within the plasma tail, this comet presented much in the way of visual reward, I still get excited thinking about it even now.
3) C/2004 F/4 Bradfield, discovered by legendary visual comet hunter Bill Brafield in the southern hemisphere it rapidly brightened and moved N when I found it before dawn in April 2004 yet again during a mild Spring morning with the early morning birds stirring. The comet was beautiful in a telescope and binoculars with over 5 degrees of straight tail and even a faint sun ward pointing anti-tail.
4) C/2004 Q2 Machholz, first spotted this guy in December 2004 in the E with a 3.5" ETX and soon the comet became a bright naked eye object located very high in the sky for much of the night. It made for countless all night observing sessions with my mate Conor, the highlight was the complex naked eye dust and ion tails with spines, streamers, multiple jets, disconnections and so much more, it showed off beside the Pleiades cluster for many nights and even during a full moon I could see it complete with two tails without optical aid.
5) 17P/Holmes, what an exciting time, during 2007 this comet experienced the brightest outburst ever seen by astronomers and suddenly the comet went from an unexciting object only seen through CCD cameras to an obvious naked eye sight even in moonlight. This wasn't a spectacular comet to look at however it was spectacular for what it did and even to this day it's still a mystery to why this outburst happened. Whatever the cause it gave me and my friends many nights of joy from October to Christmas and beyond, it was the most bizarre comet I have ever seen. It first appeared like a Nova or 'guest star' which broke up the well know constellation of Perseus which then brightened forming a fuzzy coma, it looked like a star with a halo around it then it developed a broad dust tail and complex ion tail which looked like some kind of alien jelly fish, no one had seen this coming, it all happened so fast and took astronomers by surprise which is why it remains a special comet to me.
6) C/2006 P1 McNaught, this was when comet fever arrived once again and the second time in my life when I saw a great comet although in very poor viewing conditions. This comet was not only a naked eye sight but it was also visible in broad daylight beside the sun with the naked eye!, what was frustrating though was that the entire northern hemisphere apparition coincided with some of the worst weather I have seen in this country. During the two week window period I battled with cloudy skies, rain, gales, thunderstorms, and just about everything else, I did constant evening and pre-dawn sessions and missed out on a lot of sleep so it was a tough time trying to catch this comet at all, however I did get to see it briefly over several sessions and even got my very first comet images, then it turned into the best comet in the last 50 years since Ikeya-Seki of 1965 when it astounded astronomers down under with its massive Peacock tail with synchrones. You can read all about my adventures with this comet on the report.
Discovery & Bright Expectations
This brings us neatly to the present day. On June 6th 2011 the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) located near the summit of Maui in Hawaii discovered a new comet at mag +19 designated C/2011 L4 which began to get the attention of astronomers as it did offer the possibility of becoming a naked eye comet during March and April of 2013. Not long after it's discovery the orbit was improved following further astrometric work and it become obvious that this object had great potential. The comet would pass closes to Earth on March 5th at a distance of 1.10 Astronomical Units (AU). One AU equals one Earth-Sun distance, about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. Perihelion or closest point to the Sun would take place on March 10th at 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) distance. If the comet was not a new comet, in other words it was not making its first trip into the inner solar system and it maintained its current rate of brightening then it's light curve hinted at it being a serious object around perihelion with peak magnitude being near or beyond -1 with some sources even saying -3 or even -4 was possible. Some experts compared it's future evening sky apparition to that of Donati's comet (1855) or even comet Mrkos (1957).
I have to admit that I was excited about this comet from the day it was announced and it frustrated me that I had well over a year and a half to wait before it became visible to the naked eye from the northern hemisphere. During the build up I studied everything I could find about the comet and I'm sure I did Roisin's head in by going on about it all the time, I had saved money for fuel and had choose a number of locations where I could observe and image it from so I was as prepared as I could get. The situation was this, the comet would only be visible from the southern hemisphere as it brightened however around perihelion it would gradually become a northern hemisphere object, as it spun around the sun it would move N and E becoming better placed each day, at first it would be low in the sky then within a week or two it would be higher and positioned against a darker sky background and the moon would not interfere at all with the comet at it's best.
During March Pan-STARRS would be visible in Pisces then trek through eastern Pegasus then move into Andromeda where it would pass very close to M31. During the latter period the comet should be a bright object and even in late April it could still be a naked eye comet when it would be circumpolar and hence visible all night long. I was also excited because this would be the first time a bright comet would be in our skies in conjunction with having proper camera gear, I have comet images from the past taken with my old bridge cameras and the results were not up to much however with me now armed with a decent DSLR and various lenses I felt well equipped to catch a bright comet in the act and I had a large dose of passion behind the camera to fuel me so I was ready for action, it was just up to the comet now.
During January and February 2013 the comet was well documented however this also became a time of unease as the comet was not living up to expectations and the negative powers were out in force. C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS was now known to be what's called a 'New Comet' or 'Fresh Comet' or better known as an 'Oort Cloud' comet, what this meant was that this was the comet's first trip into the inner solar system, comet's which have not been processed by the sun during previous trips can be unpredictable beasts, sometimes they can take astronomers by surprise by brightening beyond expectations however for the majority of Oort Cloud comets this is not the case. First timers seem to vent off a layer of dust which can fool experts into thinking the comet is more active than it already is, especially if the comet is far away when discovered, in this typical scenario what happens is that after a certain distance to the sun is reached the comet's rate of brightening can slow down when that material is used up, the end result is often a damp squib which no comet lover ever wants to see. This slowing down mechanism was exactly what was happening to L4 with the coma already several magnitudes behind predications and furthermore new measurements indicated the comet's nucleus was smaller than thought which can also contribute to reduced activity, especially in conjunction with a slowing downward trend.
Peak predictions for perihelion were an embarrassing mag +3.0 at best and anything more was just wishful thinking. I was already nervous at this point and the thought of not having a decent comet would seriously get me down, especially after such a long build up. A 3rd magnitude comet in a dark sky would be a respectable enough sight for astronomers however a comet with this brightness close to the sun in a twilight sky could be virtually impossible to see at all. As if this news wasn't bad enough some of the well known comet experts began to bad mouth the apparition even further by saying that the viewing circumstances post-perihelion for northern hemisphere observers was very bad indeed, the comet would be close to the sun at its best and its day to day NE movement would not be fast enough to combat the twilight background - at least not until April when the comet was fading so in a nutshell we could forget about any nice naked eye comet with tail which is exactly what I had been hoping for over the last year and 9 months.
I need to make it clear that this wasn't wishful fool-hardy hopecasting on my part, I won't name anybody in person but let's just say that certain well established figures said the opposite after the comet was discovered and when the orbit was well known, back then I was following this chat very closely and several of these comet experts promised a good apparition for the north so it's beyond me why they should suddenly change their minds now when they knew exactly where the comet would be during March and April. This magnitude drop and viewing circumstances curse seemed to open the gateway to a swarm of negative energy and soon all the Sheep where jumping on the bandwagon as usual. A number of well known southern hemisphere observers who had been following the comet had suddenly began to publicly knock the comet down using words and a rotten tone which quite honestly disgusted me, people whom I used to respect were acting like spoilt children comparing comets with others they had seen and whose comet was better than the other and soon it seemed it was a battle of egos all at the poor expense of L4 which couldn't defend itself.
The basic impression I got was that once L4 was leaving the southern hemisphere and heading north it was like they were no longer interested in the comet and made a point of lashing it with insults perhaps hoping that it would stay a disappointment for observers in the north, it was like if they can't get a good comet from Pan-STARRS then we sure as hell won't, do you know what I mean?, now I should make it clear these people were very small in number but with big mouths and this in no way sums up all the great comet observers down under who did a fabulous job of documenting L4's progress, they did this in a very dedicated fashion with many years of experience with an abundance of passion, I had spoken to a few privately during this period and they shared my view on the atmosphere at this time. There was a comment made about L4 being the most boring and unexceptional comet ever seen simply because it hadn't done anything unpredictable, how could anyone say that about a comet?, the fact that heated discussion and changes of opinions and light curves and expectations were being challenged surely was testament enough that this comet was interesting, however just because a comet is not as bright as expected does not mean it is boring. In my opinion - and anyone who appreciates nature I'm sure will agree - every comet is as unique as a human being, every comet is beautiful and no two are ever the same and the fact that they don't do what man thinks they will do makes them even more exciting to watch, they really are full of surprises, the only thing predictable about comets are their unpredictability.
Pan-STARRS Wakes Up
I was naturally disappointed by the downwards trend of this comet however instead of acting like a fool over it like some people who should have known better I decided to accept the reality and just enjoy the comet anyway and use it as a valuable training object - both for visual studies and for photography training - which would be needed in abundance when comet C/2012 S1 ISON appears later this year which could be...cough, cough...the brightest comet of our lifetime however more on that later in the year. I always try to remain positive and let nature do its thing, it wasn't long before that positive approach seemed to improve the situation, it was almost as if Pan-STARRS had been listening and wanted to give that final burst of energy to defy the negativity and show what it could do. This happened in the form of an unexpected increase in brightness as the comet got closer to the sun and that trend seemed to grow stronger and with new data to use astronomers updated the light curve to give a peak brightness of mag +2.0 or even +0.0, first a downgrade and a now an upgrade, how on Earth could this comet be boring?, we were all experiencing an emotional roll coaster at this stage and hopes were high once again. No one knew what was going to happen, would it slow down again?, would it brighten beyond expectation?, or would it follow this new light curve and behave itself?, we would find out in the days ahead.
March 10th - The Hunt Begins
Comet Pan-STARRS was at perihelion and hence its closest distance to the Sun where the comet's nucleus would be experiencing it's most intense heat while opening new jets of gas and dust on the rotating nucleus which would invigorate activity and help feed and replenish the coma and tail network. Nine times out of ten comets tend to be most spectacular post-perihelion so there was much anticipation to what we would see, if anything, could the comet be seen against the twilight?. At this point I must mention that the peak magnitude of L4 around perihelion was between +0.0 and -1.0 which exceeded the pessimistic outlook and also came fairly close the lower end of the original forecast predictions back in 2011 so the comet didn't under perform badly at all. March 10th was officially my first attempt at comet hunting and also the first of three days and nights at the Co. Antrim coast. I have always wanted to catch a comet over the ocean and this is exactly what I had planned on doing with Pan-STARRS, according to predictions L4 should be visible from near mid northern latitudes this evening shortly after sunset and would be only 2 degrees - that's 4 full moon diameters - above the SW horizon so this was going to be a challenge indeed.
We spent the day at the coast, with me was Roisin and my Mother with our Dog Rua, our plan was to enjoy the day and get some exercise then get into position at sunset and wait for twilight and catch the comet. We all had a great walk around the rough ground at Ballintoy where it meets White Park Bay beach and the sky was 95% clear with crisp clean blue sky, although the forecast was good as far as visibility went there was also a risk of light Wintry showers and we could certainly feel the cold in the air, this cold wind which seemed to be present all the time would eventually lead to significant problems for farmers in the very near future. I was getting hopeful that the sky would stay clear after sunset and with a frost predicted during the night I was quietly confident however I didn't want to say anything to jinx it because nagging at the back of my mind was the battle I had with great comet McNaught back in 2007 and I had a feeling that this hunt for Pan-STARRS was not going to be easy, but why?
First of all comets are not easy objects at all, the majority of them will not be seen by the public and even a bright comet can easily be missed unless you know exactly when and where to look, furthermore you need to be a trained observer so your eye knows what to expect. Exceptional comets in the 'great' category which can be seen by anyone who looks up are very rare indeed, with the exception of Hale-Bobb and Hyakutake which where located high in the sky and visible for hours every night the majority of bright comets are located close to the sun or what comet observers say at a low solar elongation which makes seeing them that much more difficult, and being close to the sun also means low in the sky and close to the horizon in which case the comet may only be visible anywhere from min's to an hour or two at most so you only have a short window to catch it before the comet sets due to the Earth's rotation. Pan-STARRS was visible for a small window each evening and although the window would get longer with each passing day it would be a slow battle so timing really was important and because you need a clear sky close to the horizon at that specific location you can understand why many bright comets are missed due to bad weather. You could have a stunning clear sky and just one cloud in your window area and your 'e beat, that's how low your chances of success can be and that's exactly what happened on this day and on the days ahead much to my great frustration.
What I didn't know at the time when I was thinking about that clear sky as we climbed over rocks and boulders near the shore was that the unstable NEly air mass over Scotland had formed a cell which had produced thundersnow over that area, by that I mean thunder/lightning and snow at the same time which is an amazing phenomena to experience if you haven't already done so. That same cell began moving SE, left Scotland and crossed the North Channel then arrived at the N shore of N. Ireland and it was producing snow the entire time. The first image was taken at 10mm ultra wide angle showing the snow squall approach as it got closer and closer to the shore, my hopes were greatly dashed at this point and I had a feeling of dread that there would be no comet tonight. The second image was taken with the kit lens showing huge curtains of snow falling over the sea which was a cool sight to see in itself if you will excuse the pun and as a self confessed severe weather photographer and lover of Winter weather I had to shoot this scene because it looked awesome and rather intimidating as it hit the shore at Ballintoy.
We all packed into the car for shelter and watched as horizontal snow blew through the air and strong winds shook the car, this was a proper snow squall and a nasty episode of weather and I was loving it but cursing it at the same time, at any other time this would have been cool but not now when there was a once in a life time comet to be seen, I could feel the anxiety mounting and hoped the cell would pass through before sunset because I knew the sky would be clear behind it with this cold set-up. We were all getting tired, cold, and hungry so we went for a drive back inland and as we did so we were shocked at the state of the snow, near the sea it wasn't laying however 100mm inland and there was a heavy white dusting on the ground which was covering everything within min's, it was absolutely beautiful to drive through and we were all taken back with surprise by how notable it was, nothing was forecast to this extent and besides it was Mother's Day, we had never seen snow before on Mother's Day. We got a takeaway in Bushmills then parked the car at the Giant's Causeway hotel car park and waited.
The sun had set and the sky was slowly clearing and it was nearing that magic window where I could catch the comet, I was set-up outside the car on exposed ground, bitterness had set in as I knew I was defeated, the entire sky was clear and in the distance was that now dark cell moving towards Donegal in the NW so in theory the comet should have been visible in the clearance behind it however a small train of cumulus following the cell had blocked the comet and it was clear everywhere else, the cumulus line only blocked 10 degrees of sky along the horizon but it was enough to ruin the day, the wind was trying to blow my tripod over and it was cutting through all my clothes and my hands hurt from the cold as I tried searching with the telephoto lens on and using the binos however it was all in vain. The clouds then cleared my window area as if taunting me because I knew by the darkness of the sky and by the rich number of stars on view that the comet had set, I felt defeated and angry however on the positive side I did get snow, now it was personal for I was determined more than ever to see this comet, if only I knew then that the prize would take longer than I thought.
March 11th - Strength In Numbers
Night two at the cold and windy Co. Antrim coast and this time I was joined by Paul Martin, Peter Scott, and Steve Lansdell. Paul is from Omagh and a fellow night sky and storm photographer whom I have met several times for aurora shoots and storm chases, he is a great guy and we are good friends and for the last year we had been talking about meeting up to shoot comet Pan-STARRS over the ocean and that time was now, where had all that time gone?, back then it had seemed such a long distance away in the future yet now here we where ready to catch this comet by the tail. Peter and Steve flew over from England to stay a few nights so we all agreed to meet up and do our best to photograph this comet and do a few night shoots of the local attractions so that was the plan. Peter and Steve are two fantastic guys whom I have known for many years on the internet, we had met on the weather forums then kept in touch through email and facebook, these guys are hard core photographers, they have flown to the far north to shoot the aurora and every year for the last decade they have been chasing storms and tornadoes in the USA so they were very well seasoned photographers, this would be my first time meeting them in person and I couldn't wait, I couldn't think of a better time and reason to do so, there's nothing better than doing what you love with like-minded people and to think that a comet millions of miles away in the solar system is what brought us all together.
Paul met me in Maghera then together we hit the coast just as the disk of the sun was setting to the SW over Donegal. We met Peter and Steve in the Giant's Causeway car park and introductions were made, jokes were flying, and the atmosphere was good. The sky was clear once again however the nasty cold breeze was making life difficult so we decided to try a location on lower ground were we could get more shelter once the sky darkened a little further. We all got chatting about auroras and Peter and Steve shared with us their storm chasing stories in Tornado Alley which was fascinating, Steve gave me a gift which was a USB pen with a video stored on the drive which we watched on his Ipad showing an incredible electrified supercell thunderstorm with constant lightning which was epic to watch, I was highly impressed and delighted to have got such a cool gift. We then drove to the Giant's Causeway where we got a little shelter from the wind using the cliffs and rocks as wind breakers however it was still cold and there seemed to be no relief in sight so we just had to stick it out.
It was a cool feeling with the four of us setting up tripods with cameras ready but after a good wait it become obvious we had missed the comet once again due to a small group of cumulus clouds which hung over its position while the rest of the sky was clear, I could sense the frustration from the group however we were still in good spirits and had the rest of the night ahead of us with the universe for company. First half of the night was spent on the Giant's Causeway rocks shooting the Milky Way and the bright zodiacal light over the famous rocks then we changed location and went to Dunluce Castle for the second part of the night. This photo shoot was a nice memory for me, all four of us climbed over the railing to get off the main path and worked our way across unforgiving grass on the edge of a hill which in places was at a 45 degree angle, all of us had picked our spots with cameras on tripods shooting the starry sky above the ancient ruins of this famous castle, we were all laying down on the grass beside our respective tripods taking images and talking about many subjects.
I have to say I loved this moment, just being here in the middle of nowhere in the dark at an ancient landmark with other photographers who love the sky as much as I do really was special, we felt like kindred spirits in the night, great people, great location and great sky, this was heaven. We were all relaxed laying on that long grass on a sloping hill, you would have thought it was Summer if you had seen us and hard to believe it was late Winter, time seemed to stand still and the night turned calm and quiet except for the gentle rumble of the sea below us and the click from four camera shutters. Above is one of many images from this session at 10mm showing Dunluce Castle with the Milky Way aloft, a passing car lit the stone work for me which kind of worked here, the red below was from my own head torch. This was a nice angle and I made a vow to try it again in the near future if Pan-STARRS would stop playing hide and seek with us.
This was 01.30 in the morning, Peter and Steve had called it a night after a busy period of traveling and being out in the cold so before we headed home Paul and I had one more photo shoot, this time on White Rocks beach near Portrush. The night was so cold, I could actually feel the damp penetrating cold coming through the sand into my boots while a frost glistened on top, it's quite surreal to see frost on a beach, I had trouble last year and earlier this year from too many late night photo shoots in the cold and bitter winds, prolonged chest infections were the order of the day and it took a long time to shake off and to feel myself again, that lasted for months and after a few recent Winter snow shoots in the mountains already during January and February I was wary of being out for long in it, at this point in time I was absolutely sick of the cold and sick of the cold wind, it seemed to be here all the time and I had enough of it. Paul and I had a good half hour of fun here with the cameras and within min's we had all forgotten about the cold, we set up the tripods and took long exposures of the Milky Way over the ocean in the distance with the 10mm lens, then we decided to make foot prints in the sand and have them lead out to the sea which you can see in this shot then Paul came up with the idea of making ghosts on the image then seeing how many we could make, it was a laugh and after four ghosts it got tricky trying to figure out where to stand so you didn't overlap your previous ghost, by the time we were finished experimenting we were laughing.
On this four shot Paul is to the L and I am on the R, if you stand still during an exposure you will look more solid however if you move or run out of the frame at some point you will look transparent and like a ghost, you can actually see the stars through my back and head, we had to count a certain number of sec's then quickly shuffle forward at an angle and wait then run swiftly out of frame in the end in order to stop the exposure, in more advanced versions we would swap sides by jumping across the footprints to make six figures, we called an end to the night before we got too carried away but it was a laugh and a good way of learning photography on the job. You can see M31 at image centre about to set, I watched it and wondered if it would be clear on the nights when L4 would pass very close to this galaxy, that would make a cool photo opportunity, in fact, I would happily miss the comet now in order to see that rare event. I would find out soon enough.
March 12th - Tail of Woe
I woke up early this morning and wasn't feeling in good shape, the cold and recent late nights were taking their tole on me and I was feeling a little run down, the sky was forecast to be clear this night too so I had planned on my third night at the coast and would meet Peter and Steve once again for another comet hunt and late night photo shoot. I decided I at least had the luxury of sleeping in for a while and getting my energy back. I did some research online about Pan-STARRS and it was obvious that we were not the only people having trouble battling against clouds, from what I could put together large areas of Europe, UK, and the US within the favourable mid latitude range were all having weather trouble so there was very little in the way of observations and the few that did get reported were getting attacked once again by the negative elements in the comet world which was stirring up some ill feelings among observers, magnitude estimates were getting critiqued and no one knew just how bright the comet was due to conflicting reports and with the smell of snobbery in the air wafting through the mail I decided to shut it down and get some rest, I had no time for that nonsense and didn't care much for magnitude estimates either, I just wanted to see the comet!.
I had just closed my eyes when my mobile rang, it was my Dad with worrying news, my Uncle Kieran was missing and had been for three days and the family were very concerned. The Police had been informed and were searching via patrol car and even the search helicopter was in action. My Uncle walked a lot in the countryside and could have been anywhere so there was a large area to cover. My Dad and I spent the afternoon doing a man hunt to aid the effort and other relations where doing the same at other locations. I have to admit this was a very surreal moment, my Dad and I split up and spent hours walking through fields and jumping over wire fences and walking through Cow manure with Cb radios in search of my Dad's Brother who I knew deep down was no longer with us, it was cold and raining too and the sky was pure grey and flat, this wasn't turning into a good a day at all. We never found him - thank goodness as I didn't want to be the one - however we got a call that a local had found his body in a field at the other side of town and that was that. He was dead, we later learned he had a heart attack, this event was very sudden and very tragic and left me feeling numb with no idea what to feel as there were just too many emotions in the air to deal with. I won't go into any more detail about it however I would just like to say that my Uncle Kieran was a very intelligent and funny man who would always talk to you and made you laugh, over the years I have met him numerous times in the countryside while I was out watching convection and storms and together we would spend hours chatting on the sunny grass about stars, the universe, music, history and all sorts of subjects, I knew from these conversations he was very well read, he would never force his opinions on you but would just leave a piece of information hanging in the air with a wink for you to draw your own conclusion.
I will give you an example of his humor, this is a story of his that I have never forgotten and which always makes me laugh. I bumped into Kieran in town a number of years ago on Christmas Eve while everyone was busy panicking buying last minute items and rushing around, however Kieran was relaxed as usual. He said he had met an American visiting N. Ireland some time ago and the American asked him...''does it always rain this often in N. Ireland?''...to which Kieran replied in classic style...''In N. Ireland it only rains twice a year....once for the first six months and again for the second six months''
Despite feeling spaced out by the events which transpired this day and the miles we covered combined with my lack of sleep and not feeling the best I had to leave and head back to the coast, I had some photo-related business to take care of and I had to get to the premises before closing time, I just made it with 5 min's to spare and I hoped they didn't smell the cow manure from my boots or see the dirt on my jeans however it couldn't be helped, it was a mad day and there was no time for refreshments, I hadn't even had dinner however I did bring a flask and a few snacks to keep me going. I then met Peter and Steve at Dunluce, we waited there for a few passing showers to clear then we went on the move again to a new location with two car loads of us driving around the coastal roads, we pinched our comet hunting tents so to speak in the small parking area above White Park Bay beach which gave us a great elevated view across the ocean, however the cold penetrating NEly wind was making life hell for us once again, there really seemed to be no respite and it was the kind of wind which could make you ill so we moved the cars and parked them at an angle to act as wind breakers and at one point all three of us where crouching behind the car door to stay out of the wind and to avoid tripods getting blown over and camera shake which was more than possible with telephoto lenses attached.
The sky was clear except for a few rows of cumulus clouds once again which where located in the region we wanted to stay clear, the sunset was quite dramatic though, the white area is the disk of the sun dropping out from behind those dark cu which were partially under lit in orange and gold, all of us commented on it and got a few images. This was meant to be one of the most photogenic nights of the comet's apparition when the comet and wafer thin crescent moon would be side by side after sunset, I had been looking forward to this event for a long time. We watched through our binos and lenses and saw nothing then a break in the cloud opened and through the binos I saw the stunning thin moon as a crescent of gold low on the horizon then the clouds closed again and that was it, no comet to be seen and not even a chance to try, I took images through any tiny gaps I could find hoping to pick it up but it was a no show and to rub it in the sky was clear everywhere else, I was beginning to get annoyed because Peter and Steve had come all the way over here and we can't even see this comet despite being clear, they would be heading home the following day so I felt annoyed at the sky as I didn't want them to go home empty handed.
However the night had just begun so we made the most of it and went on a relaxed photo shoot at one of my personal favourite locations at Ballintoy Harbour, we were taking test images to the NW and noticed a glow in the sky above the horizon which seemed to slowly wax and wane in brightness then all three of our cameras picked up the glow too, it was an aurora!. Not a great display by any means however no aurora activity was expected tonight so this was a pleasant surprise indeed so we kept shooting anyway in the hope it would grow, in the above image the purple glow over the Milky Way is part of the display, we would catch it on and off for hours.
We then met local photographer Brian Fullerton and the four of us chatted away swapping stories about cameras, storms, auroras, and everything else in between, it was a good time and a nice memory with all of us taking images beside the wall near the cottage as the ocean gently lapped against the rocks. This image was looking N to NW across the sea over the basalt rock formations with the spotting scope in the frame pointing at Jupiter which at times sported a nice halo within the Hyades with the blue jewels of the Pleiades to the R and Auriga, Perseus and Cassiopeia above. We called it a night around 03.30 and I was back home for 04.30, it had been a fun night and although the sky and comet had been fairly quiet for us we still got treated to back to back clear skies and had a fun time meeting up. New friends and memories had been forged and future shoots will no doubt come from this, thanks very much Peter and Steve for coming over!
March 13th - First Sighting!
Fourth night in a row at the Co. Antrim coast and starting to lose the plot, Peter and Steve where back in England so this time I took my Mother and our Dog Rua out for an afternoon coastal walk and to try and catch L4 once again and like before the forecast was for clear skies, like each day before it the wind was cold and blustery so I was feeling sick of being controlled by it however I took the control back into my hands and tried a new location on lower ground were some shelter was on offer, we parked beside a picnic table half way down the narrow road which led to White Rocks beach near Portrush and waited.
Here's the view out the window at 10mm, the sky looked promising and this time the winds had backed from NEly to a more Nly flow which was cleaner still however I was getting concerned about those trains of cumulus blowing in from the sea which seemed to stack and build near the sun.
Lack of sleep, cold, emotionally trained and not giving up on Pan-STARRS, this was me chilling out while waiting for sunset. It was actually quite peaceful and warm at this point and I could have easily fallen asleep here, I just closed my eyes and relaxed preserving my energy.
Even Rua was starting to lose faith in the comet, she had been running along the beach earlier and got soaked by the tide so she was now wrapped in a towel in the passenger seat getting plenty of TLC, she was absolutely knackered and it was funny to watch her head slowly fall and her eyes close into sleep, then she would wake again and lift her head back up and her head would drop again over and over, it was hilarious to watch and relaxing too, I nearly fell asleep with her.
The sun had set and after a flask of tea I was ready for action. Tonight L4 would still be fairly close to the SW of the crescent moon making for another great photo opportunity, I had the DSLR with Canon 100-400mm lens set-up on the tripod beside the picnic table at 400mm and waited with great anticipation while undertaking periodic careful sweeps with my pocket 8x41mm binos, Paul Martin and I were swapping text messages and the positive vibes were high, we both felt this was going to be the night. The sky was clear, the deep blue dusk colour was wonderful and I waited and waited however those dark cu kept packing in over the only location in the sky which I needed to be clear and once again I felt the frustration building. The crescent moon was ducking and diving behind passing cloud so I photographed it since it was so beautiful and sharp, you can see the earthshine and Maria on the dark side while the sunlit crescent featured irregular features on the inside which were the outlines of craters and mountains.
The sky was darkening fast and time was running out to see the comet so I frantically swept through the scudding clouds very low in the SW sky and just when I had given up all hope a small elongated break yawned open within the black clouds and as I panned the bino FOV slightly to the right I froze, OMG there it was!!, C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS in all its glory, I had perhaps 1 to 2 sec's to take in as much information as possible before the clouds enveloped the comet in darkness once again. I didn't even have time to adjust the position of the camera to get an image however I was still buzzing from the visual sighting. The comet was extremely well condensed with a tack sharp swept back parabolic-shaped coma and a long straight dust tail extending to the upper R, both the tail and coma were very bright and in high contrast against the background sky and both were pure gold in colour, and I mean pure gold!, seeing that golden tail was magical. As I drove home I felt rather cheated, seeing the comet after such a long battle was a great sensation however having nothing on camera bothered me alot, I had succeeded one way but failed in the other and in effect was coming home empty handed. After all that time, effort, and petrol money and I still hadn't an image to show for it. Paul text back saying he saw it too and got an image from the mountain in Omagh which was great news. Perhaps the ocean wasn't the best place after all, I decided that on the next clear night I would try closer to home and see how my luck held out. This was my 57th observed comet and well deserved it was too and the parallels with McNaught in 2007 were shocking, but not surprising, this is why hunting comets is so much fun!
March 15th - A Golden Comet Over Glenshane Pass
Two days later I was at my Uncle's funeral and by the time I parted company with my relatives it was almost sunset and the sky was crystal clear and full of promise so I rushed home and got my gear ready and some warm clothes, tonight I vowed I would catch this comet, but not only that I would get it on camera for Kieran. Dusk arrived swiftly and just as swiftly I drove up Glenshane Pass with purpose, I worked my way up a small country road on the top of the Pass with a great view across the mountains and parked beside a gate and waited. Timing was crucial, this comet was still at a small elongation from the sun so it would still be very low in the west just after sunset, searching too early would be fruitless as the sky would be too bright to see the comet and if I left it until the sky got too dark the comet would have set so that window period was short but all one needed was a clear sky and success would follow. It was cold on the mountain, I felt cold and exposed however for what seemed like an eternity it was calm and for that I was most grateful. As the min's ticked by after sunset I mounted the camera on the tripod and attached the heavy metal Canon 100-400mm F/5.6 telephoto lens pointing west and I waited. I had damaged my good 10x50mm binos so I had borrowed my Dad's 8x41mm pair which were very impressive and tack sharp. I began scanning the sky in slow careful sweeps over and over in horizontal overlapping movements and when I found nothing I repeated the search again and again. A local stopped for a chat with me about astronomy and we discussed comets and auroras and eventually he left which was a good thing because I'm not a multi tasker and need to be concentrating on what I'm doing, one thing at a time. Sweep by sweep dark blue sky filled the field of view then suddenly there it was!.
I got an instant hit of adrenaline and tunnel vision, everything became a blur around me and the cold vanished as my mind went into comet combat mode. I noticed a large black bank of convective shower clouds approaching from the west (L) and thought where the heck did those come from?, unreal, here was the comet and soon the clouds would cover it again so I operated as fast I could without knocking over my tripod, those clouds were slow moving so I had some time however once Pan-STARRS was lost behind them that would be game over for tonight. I switched quickly between 400mm captures and rapid fire visual looks through the binos. I was certainly in the zone and managed to acquire a lot of images so here's a few. Here was the star of the show, comet C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS, after months of anticipation and countless nights hunting in vain I finally had him on camera, and it felt great, I was buzzing.
This is a slight crop from a 400mm frame. Those clouds are the leading edge of those convective showers I saw, moving L to R so I simply kept taking images. At 400mm this lens is 'slow' so I had to use ISOs between 800 and 1600 so I could get away with a shorter shutter speed. I bracketed my shots though, by this I mean I took them at short shutter speeds with a high ISO, then longer shutter speeds with a smaller ISO and any variation in between. These were typically in the 2-4 sec range.
I knew I had a good support system of images already and I felt triumph because I had beat the clouds and still had a few min's left to savour the view. Getting images is always top priority for me however it is my philosophy that one should always take a moment to leave the camera at peace and take in the visual experience to have as a special memory for the rest of your life. I could see the entire comet perfectly on the back of the LCD screen and in the binos it was gorgeous and completely alien in form. Yet again I was in awe to see a golden comet in the field of view only this time it was much larger and like the way a comet should look, I could see a well condensed gold coma and a long complex gold dust tail with what seemed like divisions which hinted at synchronic banding and various lanes of mystery. CCD images were showing a stunning complex broad dust tail complete with synchrones and other features so this must have been what I saw.
Then I saw it with the naked eye, I recalled reading many reports online of people not being able to see it without optical aid so it became known as the great binocular comet of 2013, however this was nonsense, Pan-STARRS was an easy naked eye golden comet low in the NW 5 degrees above the horizon and it looked a splendid sight above the dark outline of the Sperrins and against the dark blue dusk sky with the white waxing crescent moon to the upper left, for some reason it reminded me of a golden shuttle cock in the sky!. Here's those clouds about to take the comet away from me for the night, this was my second last image and my favourite from the shoot, having a clear sky is great however some clouds in the sky can really add to an image and for this reason I think this is a much more dramatic image than the others. Then as I watched through the LCD screen the comet was gone however for a few sec's I could see that beautiful golden tail shooting up like a search light beam from behind those black clouds and what a sight it was. My fingers hurt from the freezing cold as I put away the gear however I didn't care, it was a great session, I was happy and in my element and deserved to spend a warm evening back indoors with Roisin. Kieran this is for you!
March 27th - TESCOS & Snow
It had been 18 days since my last sighting of Pan-STARRs thanks to a remarkable period of cloudy weather which once again seemed on par with what I experienced when I tried to catch McNaught back in 2007. We had an insane historic late Winter blizzard (report) which generated 20ft deep snow drifts and killed over ten thousand Sheep and other livestock. N. Ireland seemed to get stuck in a Ely to NEly flow which brought in a lot of cold air from Europe and with it came snow, ice, and an abundance of cloud. I tried every night however it was hopeless and according to what I read online other comet observers online in Europe, Britain and parts of the US were having the same problem. I thought I had a break on March 27th when the sky suddenly cleared at dusk so once again I raced back up Glenshane Pass and my hopes were high, the comet was now far enough from the sun to be seen well up in the NW sky at dusk within Andromeda and near well known bright stars which made for an excellent guide post so I got the 100-400 back on and was ready to get my best images yet until I looked behind me and saw a formation of dark clouds approaching from the NE, I couldn't believe it, the camera wasn't focused yet and within a min the clouds would be here to antagonize me once again, those cumulus lines drifted over the NW and all I could see was black with a few stars in the small gaps here and there, I focused quickly using Jupiter then swung the lens to where I thought the comet might be and took several quick exposures then the stars were gone and it began to snow heavily.
All around me was a huge black gust front engulfing the entire sky which looked really cool which I wanted to shoot however the conditions were getting too nasty and not wanting another chest infection I wasn't going to tempt fate. The cell blasted freezing winds across the mountain which penetrated through every layer of my clothing chilling me to the bone and my eyes stung has large snow flakes slapped my face as I tried to remove the camera and lens from the tripod, a screw on my tripod mount came off and fell to the ground in the dark so I had to waste time searching for it with my head torch while freezing in the snow, and as always when things fall directly near your boots you always end up finding them some place else which defy's the laws of physics but I got it then the big lens would not come off the mount and the more I tried the more my temper boiled, I was so cold, my hands were in agony and I began to lose feelings in my fingers, I needed precise movements to get the plates and bolts sorted but with no feelings it was a nightmare. I was pissed off and just yelled at the sky cursing out loud at the mountain, if anyone had been within ear shot they would have though I was a nutter, however I persevered and got it fixed and got back in the car waiting for the sky to clear.
It didn't, the snow got heavier and faster and at times there was a snow fog blowing past the car window, it was surreal and nasty outside while inside I moaned and complained with the pains in my fingers as I tried to warm them with the car heater which felt like torture. A TESCO delivery van appeared, drove up the mountain road then vanished in the snow then came back again and stopped for a chat, the driver was raging as he had to deliver groceries up a mountain road in the middle of nowhere in a snow storm with no visibility on a road barely big enough for his van, I'm sure the customer didn't inform him of this beforehand. The driver couldn't see any house and was not keen on going up that snowy mountain road so I calmed him down and showed him exactly where to go and how to find the house using key landmarks which I knew well and off he went again and eventually found the house. Maybe I was meant to be there just to help him out, anyway the owner of the home would not have got their shopping if it wasn't for me so it's funny to think that it was a comet which helped with the delivery because had there been no comet I wouldn't have been there to help. Speaking of comets, I was warmed up again and my circulation had returned so I previewed my cloudy exposures with the intention of deleting them when suddenly I spotted Pan-STARRS on one single frame between clouds with a curved dart-shaped tail softened by scudding cloud, it wasn't worth adding to the report however I was astonished to have captured it at all in such a cloudy sky and by just randomly pointing the camera not knowing exactly where I was shooting, that was a neat feeling, I felt that perhaps my dedication was starting to pay off and that nature was going to reward me soon.
March 29th - Good Friday & Roisin's First Comet
Two nights later and the sky suddenly cleared again, I was beginning to think I had been through the worst of the clear sky drought and finally the weather was relenting. Roisin and I warmed up at a filling station with snacks and a latte then headed back up the mountain again to my same spot on Glenshane Pass. There was still large patches of snow on the ground and it was absolutely freezing however the twilight stars were out in force and despite the moonlight I could see the Milky Way running through Cygnus, tonight L4 was in the large constellation of Andromeda to the south of M31 and despite a broken formation of altocumulus breaking up the constellations I managed to catch the comet easily on camera. I opted for the fast 24-70mm F/2.8 lens at 70mm which gave me the best zoom and fastest lens speed combination I could get on a static tripod so I put it through it's paces. The temp had dropped like a stone once again and messing about touching metal tripod legs quickly turned my hands to agony again and soon they went numb and I couldn't even feel the cable release button or focus ring which was a nightmare but I managed to get a few images of the comet against a very atmospheric purple-blue twilight sky background with stars and all framed naturally by orange patches of cloud lit from below by distant lights from nearby towns, it was a nice scene however I declined from posting it on here as the focus had slipped on me and the stars were not pinpoints.
I could faintly glimpse the comet with the naked eye and through the binos it was an engaging sight, this time it had a distinctive pearly white colour over the entire parabolic shaped coma and long straight white dust tail extending for perhaps a degree to the 11 o'clock position, watching it with slightly trembling hands due to the cold with fragments of puffy cloud sailing through the binocular field made for a nice memory. I called Roisin out from the car, she let her eyes adjust to the darkness then I passed her the binos and showed her where to took and after a few sweeps she found it, she could see it and the tail and she smiled with delight, this was her very first comet observation - ever, and I was delighted to have been a part of it. In some ways I wish it had been a more striking object for her first experience however she respected nature and appreciated it for what it is and felt honored to have observed this magical visitor to our skies - a very 'Good Friday' indeed.
March 30th - Comets & Babysitting
Comet Pan-STARRS was now mag +4.0 and retreating from both the Earth and Sun however it was still a naked eye object and from my logical thinking it should now be most impressive despite these drawbacks because the comet's easterly elongation was such that it was now visible against a dark background sky and located within northern Andromeda which was a circumpolar constellation which meant the comet would be visible all night long and to add the celestial icing on the cake Pan-STARRS would be making a close pass near M31 on the nights ahead which would provide an extra boost of motivation as it promised to be a great visual experience and photogenic moment that I will never see again with this first time visitor so I was on high alert for the slightest clear break. Roisin and I were babysitting this night from the dark country skies near Creggan not far from the shore of Lough Neagh in Co. Antrim and as usual I had the car packed with camera, binos, lenses, tripod and everything else in between. I saw a clear break as the sky got dark then the clouds closed in once again teasing me so I went inside to enjoy a nice warm mug of tea, I barely got half way through the mug when the Father of the Children we were babysitting informed me just as they were leaving that he could see stars and that it looked good so I went straight out and set up the gear on the side garden with my back against tall dark trees which blocked out the moonlight in that direction.
It seemed to take forever for a large clear sector to reach the NW where the comet resided but when it did I caught L4 immediately with the 70mm lens at F/2.8, the result was encouraging however since the sky was dark I wanted to reduce trailing so I switched to the 50mm F/1.8 lens which gets me in almost as close and is extremely 'fast' so I could get away with short exposures and collect more light and hence more detail in the comet. 8 sec exposures were doing a wonderful job and I felt highly encouraged about using this lens again with the correct kind of foreground, L4 and M31 were both on the frame as two smudges however I couldn't see anything with the naked eye due to atmospheric extinction, however through the binos I could see both phenomena in the same field and as the Earth rotated during the course of the night the comet lowered into the NW and for a short magical moment, through the binos, I could see it's beautiful tail fanning skyward above the dark outline of a distant pine tree against a backdrop of stars, I couldn't have done this moment justice with the camera, it was a visual experience that delivered a wonderful emotional impact, I stood there watching and controlling my breathing because a frost was forming and I didn't want to fog the objectives, it was silent and calm, just Pan-STARRS and I then the tail set behind the tree line and I returned back indoors to make the most of another well deserved mug of tea, I reckon I failed miserably at babysitting kids however I excelled in babysitting comets!
March 31st - Comet Pan-STARRS From Cookstown
Street lights, towns and comets don't usually mix however on this occasion I had no choice and had to make the best of what I had, the sky was crystal clear in every direction which supported my earlier trend that the period of cloudy weather was over and a clear sky trend was what lay ahead in the future. I was at my Dad's house in Cookstown and went outside to observe the comet however I could not see the comet without optical aid or through the binos due to street lights, I was wedged between the garage and house in the driveway positioned in such a way that I could use the garden trees to shield the lights and get imagery. I used the 24-70mm F/2.8 and Dad's 100-300mm F/5.6 lens and succeeded in capturing the comet complete with tail behind the neighbour's aerial which actually looked pretty cool however trailing was still an issue but it felt nice to be able to shoot it from a built up area. I needed to get away from the lights so I left the neighbourhood on foot carrying camera and tripod, crossed the main road in covert fashion making sure no one seen me then climbed over a gate and ended up in a nice field with long stalks of dry grass which was almost like walking through a hay field which was surreal, I got away from the orange pools of light and entered the dark corner of the field then shot the comet with the 50mm F/1.8 lens over the tall hedgerow, I couldn't see the comet with the naked eye however through the nifty fifty it looked excellent close to M31 with a very promising tail. I felt there was great photo potential for this scene from a very dark site with this lens when M31 and L4 got even closer over the next few nights so once back in the country I was going to make the most of this most photogenic encounter between comet and galaxy.
April 3rd - Comet Pan-STARRS Over Giant's Causeway - Amazing Night!
C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS was now at it's most spectacular, at least that was the conclusion which I had come to based on my recent observations and with this comet now circumpolar against a dark sky background with no moonlight and in the process of making a truly spectacular close conjunction near the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) there was no doubt that this was the time to make the best of this exciting comet apparition. Others were reporting no visual sightings and those that did had little in the way of emotional attachment or excitement associated with the comet however I was glad to see that I was not the only one who thought L4 was now at it's prime, good friend and veteran comet observer John C. McConnell from Maghaberry, N. Ireland had also been commenting on how this comet was looking better and better every night, John has over 50 years of astronomical experience under his belt and saw his first comet, the famous Arend-Roland with huge anti-tail back in 1957, so John knew what he was talking about. The comet-M31 conjunction coincided with a period of exceptionally clear weather so I decided I would give the Co. Antrim coast one last try to redeem itself and provide me with my goal of seeing a comet over the ocean and so a plan rapidly unfolded.
We decided to make a day of it, Roisin, my Mum and our Dog Rua went to the coast together to have a nice day out, get some fresh air and exercise then end the trip with a comet photo shoot. We spent the day walking at various locations along the coast then stopped in Bushmills for a coffee and sandwiches, it was a cool day however for once the sun was shining and if it wasn't for the chill one would have thought it was a Summer's day as the town was buzzing with activity which was great to see. There where numerous tourist coaches parking with departing occupants checking out the shops and busying themselves along the footpaths admiring the buildings while the sun shone and people smiled, this was a far cry from the cold and snow we had been getting not that long ago. It was even pleasant enough to sit outside a cafe in the street and drink coffee. This was taken during the late evening, after a lot of walking in the sand I was feeling dry so I got an ice cream and just as I came out from the shop I noticed this on the pub wall across the street which I thought I would share for readers outside this country. That's the legendary giant Finn MacCool standing on the Giant's Causeway rocks, this painting covers the entire wall of the building and is actually quite imposing and impressive to view in person. It must have been a good omen because the Giant's Causeway was exactly where I was intending to shoot Pan-STARRS this night.
We went for a drive along the coastline to kill time, if only people knew we were waiting for darkness to fall to photograph a fuzzy comet millions of miles away. The view outside Ballintoy was rather beautiful and good for the soal with the landscape lit in warm colour by the lowering sun with lush green fields and orange-brown mountains and cliffs and in the distance there was still significant evidence of snow from that insane blizzard. I could see snow on the Antrim hills, Mournes, a few patches on the cliffs above Ballintoy, snow on Rathlin Island and amazingly I could see snow on the mountains of Scotland easily with the naked eye across the ocean, that's how good the clarity was this day and another good sign for this night's shoot. I randomly pulled over near a gate and admired the Spring Lambs which were cute sitting beside their Mothers lazily chewing grass with the sun in their eyes and as you can see Rua took a keen interest in them too. She had been sleeping for a while and looked groggy however the Sheep soon woke her up, she's a curious dog.
Our timing at the Giant's Causeway was complete and utter perfection, the sky was black and packed with stars with a twilight glow across the ocean horizon adding to the magic of the night. I was already commenting on the sky as soon as the car stopped saying ''wow'' over and over such was the quality of the stars. My plan was to photograph Pan-STARRS over the famous Giant's Causeway rocks. Mum and Rua stayed in the car with instructions not to turn on the headlights and use only interior lighting if it was needed as I didn't want any stray artificial light contamination. I love the Giant's Causeway, this location is considered an area of outstanding natural beauty and dates back between 50 and 60 million years to the late Cretaceous period not long after the Dinosaur extinction event, this coastline was shaped by moving ice sheets and volcanic eruptions which is why all the rocks here are basalt and column-shaped, if you look down on the individual large rocks they have between 6 and 8 sides like variations of a hexagon which makes them very unique indeed, in fact, people travel from all over the world to look at them and even stand upon the rocks, however you simply cannot beat being here at night when all the tourists have gone. I love it here at night, you can sense how ancient this place is and can feel it's energy, I have been here a lot imaging the stars and shooting auroras so I know it well however it does go through mood swings and needs to be treated with respect as it is dangerous in stormy weather. At times I have felt complete and utter peace here however during other nights Roisin and I have felt a negative energy and it was our impression that we were not wanted there so we moved on, I always feel that when I'm shooting here I don't overstay my welcome, I don't know if any other photographers have experienced this here however we certainly have on a number of occasions.
However that didn't matter on this night as the energy was great and we felt more than welcome, in fact, I was feeling completely in tune with nature and my environment. Carrying camera gear in our hands and each wearing head torches we navigated across the multitude of dark hexagon rocks closer to the sea, the rocks were dry which aided our progress and soon we where standing on high rocks near the sea looking at the famous formation in front of us. The above image was taken at 18mm using the kit lens showing Pan-STARRS and M31 with the twilight glow above the rocks, Roisin was doing her 'light painting', by that I mean sweeping the beam of the torch over the rocks to illuminate them, this effect would get accentuated by the exposure so it was a case of trial and error to get the way we wanted it, it looked great against the twilight and stars though.
Here was the problem. The 18mm lens was too wide to show the comet up close so I needed more magnification and a short shutter speed to reduce trailing of the stars and comet so I decided to make my fast Canon 50mm F/1.8 lens my friend again. A 50mm F/1.8 lens on a x1.6 crop sensor camera is similar to a fixed 80mm lens which got me in close which was great and being so fast it was the perfect tool for the job, the only drawback however was the small field of view which made composing the frame with comet and foreground much more challenging. In order to get some of the rocks in the frame we needed to change location and trek once more across the dark dangerous rocks, backing away from the main rock formation was the best plan of action, we did this until we could back up no more because other rocks closer inland would block the main formation so after much climbing and sore ankles I found the sweet spot in the form of a nice basalt rock ledge which was just large enough for the both of us and the tripod and it was from here the rest of the night's images were taken. In front of us was a steep drop onto rocks below then the ocean itself so we needed to keep our wits about us to avoid accidents so it was a case of only using our head torches when needed and for the rest of the time maintain keen dark adaption. So here's M31 and L4 above the famous Causeway rocks with the 50mm prime lens, Roisin was light painting with the torch and from variations on beam movement and intensity in relation to the exposure we found a sweet spot which worked out perfectly.
This was my chance to get that personal shot of a comet and myself which I have always wanted so I showed Roisin how to take the image using the cable release and to keep the exposures between 8 and 10 sec's at ISO1600. Normally I would be using the camera and Roisin using the torch however for this to work Roisin needed to multi task and do both so she did some training shots while I watched using the remote cable release and light painting at the same time until the balance was perfect, she had it nailed very quickly so I left her to it and ran off into the night jumping over the dark rocks with nothing but the cone beam from my head torch for light and made it to the very top of the famous rock formation and stood as still as I could while Roisin took the images. It was bloody awesome standing on top of these 50 million year old rocks in a pitch black night with the dark Atlantic Ocean rumbling below me while a vault of stars surrounded me in every direction, all of them so bright and seemingly close and each begging for attention as they softly winked at me due to the effects of scintillation, however the two forms above my head completely stole the show and my attention was drawn to them both.
We had to shout at each other to be heard over the ocean breeze, I would shout ''is this position ok?'' to which Roisin would say ''perfect, taking another exposure now'' so I would stand still for 10 to 13 sec's, those sec's felt like min's as time seemed to stand still with just me and the comet having a moment together. From this dark location it was without question the best view I've ever had of this comet, I could see it easily with the naked eye extremely close to M31, both objects looked like two bright ghostly phantoms in the sky with the comet noticeably brighter than the galaxy. With the naked eye I could see the broad grey-white dust tail fanning outward in striking fashion as it left the sharp coma much like a Japanese hand fan, the tail must have been 5 or 6 degrees in length and at it's outer extremities it softly blended into the background sky, it was difficult to tell where the tail ended and the sky began as the edge was so soft and diffuse and no doubt extended for even longer than this. What amazed me was the difference between online computer generated finder charts compared with the real thing in the flesh, on the charts the comet and galaxy where in the same area of sky but well separated however in reality with the naked eye they were in unison for I could see the diffuse outer dust tail actually 'touching' the outer spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy!.
We mixed the exposures between dark and torch light for comparison and I have to admit that this dark image is one of my personal favourites because for me it captures my true passion for hunting comets. Back in 2007 I saw a mighty example of this comet's brethren from the country near home and here I was 16 years later standing on the Antrim coast beside the ocean looking up at another, so much as happened in my life during that period, there has been so much change however what hasn't changed at all during that time is my love for the sky and my desire to experience bright comets. This one image is heaven for me and while I stood there I felt a very strong connection between myself and the comet, I could see them both so easily with the naked eye and that amazing pastel grey curved delta-shaped dust tail had me mesmerized.
I would like to thank Roisin for her hard work, her patience and for sharing the experience with me and for handling the task of imaging and light painting in the dark on treacherous rocks like a professional because if it wasn't for her I wouldn't have been able to get this image on my own. I should mention that as I stood there I saw a very faint aurora over the sea, my eyes were extremely well dark adapted and I could see a glowing green enhancement shaped like a band with a subtle red glow above this, it must have been from a display further N however I could just about see it from here which was a testament to how dark this location is. When I met Roisin again I said nothing and just asked her if she noticed anything about the sky and she immediately said she thought she saw an aurora!. If you look carefully on the images you can see very faint vertical blue beams from that same aurora, how nice was this, a comet and aurora at the same time, thank you universe.
Final shot of the night then we began making our way back across the rocks towards the car however before we got there I insisted that we stopped, turned around, and looked at the sky, all cameras were put away and torches turned off and we stood in the dark side by side letting our eyes adjust to the dark and only talking in whispers, this was to be an intimate visual moment to show our appreciation of nature and have another memory to cherish free from modern technology as I wanted to see the comet the way the way the ancients did. There they were as two surreal elongated mists among the stars over the now dark outline of the Jurassic coastline, amazing. Mum and Rua had been waiting patiently for us inside the dark car, we had said we would be half an hour at most however it felt more like an hour and a half and as much as I wanted to stay longer I took pity on them and decided to pack away the gear. Before leaving I set my Meade ETX 90mm on a rock near the car park, I wanted to see this comet through a telescope for the first time, I had no finderscope attached as I use this old ETX mainly for solar work so it took quite a bit of sweeping around before I found the comet but when I did I exploded with excitement!
Oh my goodness, the comet was absolutely incredible in the 26mm eyepiece, it looked like a mini version of black and white images I had seen of great comet Hyakutake from 1996, the comet was stunning with sharp well defined coma sporting a vivid white disk-like central condensation and sweeping to the upper R extending far beyond the field was a long high contrast pastel grey dust tail with stars on either side, even during this casual glance I could make out further structures within that tail which must have been streamers or synchronic banding and a sharp line leaving the coma to the L which must have been the other side of the wide dust tail, it looked like an anti-tail pointing 90 degrees from the sun, the sight was stupendous and I moved around like a kid on Christmas morning saying ''OMG OMG you have to see this!'', so I called Roisin over and she looked in and saw it too, saw the long tail and said ''OMG'', ''I feel so privileged to see this'', Roisin really does appreciate nature as much as I do. We were buzzing all the way home to Maghera talking about the comet, the experience we had on the rocks and that final mind blowing sight through the telescope which made for a truly unforgettable night.
April 4th - Return To Glenshane Pass - Comet & Snow
It was one of those post-sunset skies were you just knew deep down that it was going to be a perfect clear night with sky whispering promises of unknown surprises waiting for those who looked up. I was at Roisin's parent's in the Toome countryside and both of us had remarked on that dusk sunset sky and how crisp, clean and cold it had become and Roisin even told me we should be out there getting images under a night like that. So after a nice warm brew we hit the road for a photo shoot, I had a few places picked out in this area involving Churches and wind vanes however the angles didn't work out so we just kept on driving, once we got beyond the illuminated purple bridge at Toome the view through the car windscreen towards the west was awesome with the entire deep blue dusk sky looking so clear it was if the Earth's atmosphere had vanished and all along the NW to SW horizon was a brilliant enhanced twilight glow with white and subtle green colours which looked remarkable, it was an atmospheric effect but no less remarkable for it and Roisin commented that it looked like the kind of night that NLCs would form - I fully agreed.
I knew I wanted to shoot Pan-STARRS over some kind of foreground however I had no idea what and where so driven more by instinct than any kind of plan we ended up on the top of Glenshane Pass once again on the very same narrow mountain road where I taken my first Pan-STARRS images back on March 15th, this time I parked the car further down the road so this way the brow of the hill would bite into the NW sky which could aid in producing some foreground interest, I was thinking of an isolated spooky tree however none where within range so instead I went for a walk up this path and spotted this snow and thought that could be interesting. I have always wanted to photograph a bright comet over snow and although the majority of it had melted there was still enough here to make a statement, this remaining snow is of interest to me and to the local area because it was remnants of the historic blizzard which caused so much trouble in the country which became international news, a truly epic Winter snow event. This was approximately two weeks after the blizzard and there was still now here to make itself known, the sides of this road were covered in sections of semi melted snow drifts and ploughed snow and in places it was over 2ft high so to catch a comet over this was certainly special for me. It was here that yet another fine comet memory was forged, what a sight, a spectacular conjunction between a comet and galaxy which is over 2 million light years distant above the bitter cold Glenshane mountain.
Together both celestial objects looked ghostly in quality with the will o'the wisp galaxy complimenting the Banshee tail of this ancient comet. It was absolutely freezing, dead still, and silent on this mountain which added to the atmosphere. There was melting snow water which had been running down the slanted road which had now frozen solid into back ice which you can see on the image, walking on this was a nightmare, it felt like there was no friction at all and even as I stood still I could feel my boots slowly sliding and with every step forwards I was sliding back again which was a killer on my ankles however the freezing cold and the challenge only added to the experience and connected me even more with the comet's frozen rotating nucleus enveloped in that misty coma. I got my images with the old faithful 50mm F/1.8 showing two worlds of ice in unison in one moment in time which I shall always remember. I would like to thank Roisin for taking this image for me and for braving the cold and ice because I needed that personal image with me standing within the frame. Moments like this really puts things in perspective, here I was at 35 years of age looking at a galaxy 2.3 million years old and an icy comet over 4 billion years old!, it really does make you wonder what it's all about, this is astronomy at it's best, when it stimulates that part of your Brain to ask those big questions about who we are and where we are going, the past and the future and the bigger picture of the universe, these same questions were asked by ancient man and although we have learned so much since then we still have just as many questions as answers. This is why I love Astronomy and why I love comets.
April 5th - Comet Pan-STARRS Over Dunluce Castle - Unforgettable Night!
For the third night in a row Roisin and I where comet chasing once again only this time we wanted to make it a very special experience since this was to be the last clear night for some time due to unsettled weather to arrive the following night and with Pan-STARRS and M31 at their closest this was a once in a life time opportunity not to be missed.
We left Maghera before sunset and arrived at the Co. Antrim coast at dusk which gave us enough time to rest, collect ourselves, and have a nice brew and snacks to recharge our batteries for the shoot ahead. As with the Causeway shoot I knew exactly what I wanted this night and that was to catch the comet over the infamous Dunluce Castle and both of us were feeling pumped for what lay ahead. We rested in the car near a picnic table beside White Rocks beach outside Portrush however resting was not to be had as our attention was grabbed by the sky. The twilight sky was simply beyond words, both of us were awestruck by it's beauty which looked like a watercolor painting. The entire W sky was painted in a striking nautical blue twilight colour and below this and adjacent to the horizon was a very intense orange glow which looked unearthly and striking with distant dark convective clouds drifting against it. Furthermore the entire ocean was reflecting this beautiful blue colour back upward and that combination of blue, orange, and white was mind blowing, I don't think I have ever seen such a beautiful dusk sky over the ocean outside of the NLC season as this one. Out of frame to the left was a dark brown smoke plume from a huge wildfire over Donegal, I took this image of the twilight scene which doesn't even do it justice it all however I had to post something just to address this nice memory. The sea was completely calm and almost like a mirror and once again I felt that nature was going to treat us tonight.
Like a celestial Goldilocks we waited until the sky was just rite, by that I mean not too cold (bright) or not to warm (dark) but at that magical zone in between when twilight and darkness merge together and it was then that we drove to Dunluce Castle and got prepared. Torches, head torches, binos, camera, tripod, lenses etc, we met another photographer who came over for a chat and together we watched the comet in the binos, he too had been impressed by that twilight sky and had been taking his own low light landscape images before we arrived. We then parted company and Roisin and I walked deep into the dark landscape, approached the castle, went down the steep stone steps, climbed over the railing and navigated across the long sloping grassy hill which flanked the castle, I knew exactly what kind of shot I wanted and where I needed to take it, Roisin and I had been doing recces here in daylight precisely for the comet and when Paul, Peter, Steve and I where on this same spot 15 days earlier - my goodness that seemed a life time ago - I had been thinking the same thing, however back then the timing wasn't rite but tonight it was absolute perfection. Pan-STARRS was bright, high placed within Andromeda against a dark sky background with no moon and a favourable elongation and it was also in the NW after dark which was the perfect angle to get both the comet and the castle, however the comet would be getting lower with each passing min so there was perhaps a 1-2 hour window to get what I was after. So here Roisin and I where perched on one of several strategic locations on a steep grassy slope with the majestic dark ruins of Dunluce Castle in front of us, all of these were taken with the 50mm F/1.8 lens.
I can't even begin to describe how amazing the atmosphere was here, Roisin and I kneeling down in the long grass on a slope at a 45 degree angle which slanted downwards to the rocks and ocean below, the landscape was pitch black and the sky still had that surreal blue hue which was glowing on the calm sea. We were still and silent and if we needed to talk we did so in a whisper as it seemed we didn't want to interrupt the communion we had with the area. The only other sound was the periodic click from my camera's shutter and of the very gentle stirring of the sea below which seemed to wax and wane over the rocks in an almost angelic fashion as if the ocean itself was asleep. Imagine all this with the absolutely ancient stone ruins of the spectacular Dunluce Castle forming an imposing black outline against the starry sky and above this two ghostly phantoms side by side above the towers. We worked as a team with me taking images and Roisin doing the light painting when needed.
This is my favourite Pan-STARRS image and probably my personal favourite image of Dunluce Castle I have taken so far. A distant car headlight passed across the stone work and brought it up for me in the exposure which was fantastic timing. According to certain sources one of the eastern towers in this image is haunted by a female ghost who was imprisoned here by her Father as she would not marry the man he had set her up with, her heart was with another man so her Father kept her here as punishment. In time he felt sorry for her and released her and one night she had planned to meet her lover who would come in by boat at the foot of the castle where they would sail away together, however a freak wave overturned the boat and they both drowned, some say their energy is still in the castle and apparently there have been sightings of her within the castle grounds in the past. You see that stone tower on the left lit by another headlight with the metal grill in the window?, I'm pretty sure that's meant to be the haunted tower. Some people may find this place intimidating at night however I never have, in fact, I have always felt complete peace here and for Roisin and it is one of our favourite locations along the Antrim coast. I can tell you something, the amazing energy from this location combined with the comet and M31 was phenomenal to experience, we will never ever forget this night. By the way all the images on this report and elsewhere on the site are for sale as photo prints, I have had this image done before and it looks fantastic, so if you are interested please email me and we will take it from there. This photo shoot was actually a business expense and within less than 24 hours later the image paid for itself and it still does so thanks nature once again for a great experience.
Portrait version with no car headlights. As I write these words and look over these images I feel like I have been transported back to this very night and can re-live every sound, sight, and smell, that's how powerful this experience was for us.
We climbed onto higher ground and the slope was extremely steep at this point and the tripod legs needed substantial adjustments to get level and our ankles hurt as wet tried to get comfortable at this angle without moving the grass and shaking the camera but we adapted like it was second nature. This is a 10mm ultra wide angle image showing the Castle with M31 and L4 visible near the far right tower, the Milky Way arched high over the ocean with Double Cluster in the middle and the Hyades, Pleiades, and Jupiter to the left.
We climbed higher and higher to compensate for the rotating Earth and lowering of the comet's position, this way I could still get Pan-STARRS over the castle however time would soon be running out so these would be the final images of the session.
One final memory which I will always cherish perhaps more than any other over the last few nights was something I could never match on camera. Roisin and I were ending the session, we climbed back onto the stone steps and began the tough ascent back to the top which is hard work in itself however when half way up we decided to stop on the steps and look back at the comet for one final look. Both of us stood close together in complete darkness and silence and with the 8x41mm binos we each took a turn admiring Pan-STARRS which shared the same field as M31, with the naked eye and through the binos I could see the dust tail merging with the spiral arms of the galaxy which was an astounding site, there have been bright comets which have passed near M31 in the past however I personally don't recall any comet who's tail passed across a portion of this vast galaxy in the manner in which Pan-STARRS has, picture this with the outline of this ancient castle and the stone work containing hundreds of years of emotions and energy and you have a recipe for a memory which will stay with us for the rest of our lives. No image could do this visual scene justice so I made this close crop from another frame to provide you with a rough idea of the experience. For a lover of comets this was what life was all about, however to be sharing it with Roisin - the love of my life - made it even more special for Roisin knew just as well as I did that comet's are ancient objects of exceptional beauty which have the ability to create life and destroy it just as quickly and with history bursting at the brim with ancient accounts of comets going back thousands of years one could sense the emotional and physical power they posses, this evoked some of those first sensations when I saw Hale-Bopp back in 1997.
I had to get an image of Pan-STARRS, M31 with Roisin and I both in the same frame for the memory. After discovery C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS was considered to be in a parabolic orbit which meant it's orbit was of very high eccentricity and would take thousands of years or more return, however since then astrometic positioning (providing precise positions on where a comet is in the sky) has shown that Pan-STARRS is in a hyperbolic orbit, this means it's orbit is open rather than closed so after this post perihelion passage which we had just observed it would never return to the solar system ever again. This comet was a one off, Humans will never set eyes on it again and I haven't set my eyes on it since this magical night again. The reason is that when I think of this comet in the future I want the mental images from this night to appear in my head, this was the comet at it's most beautiful, seen from an incredible location and arm in arm with my soul mate, so I let the comet back into the celestial ocean like a fish and left it at peace.
Pan-STARRS is the first of two bright comets in 2013, although it didn't live up to expectations it was will a beautiful object and kept me entertained for a very long time, I have felt anger, frustration, anxiety, despair, hate and excitement, adrenaline, happiness, glowing warmth, thrills, love, appreciation for nature and earned my full and absolute respect for the comet, when I feel an abundance of traits like this it means the comet was a worthy subject, not only that it also gave us much needed observing experience and photo training to keep us focused on what could be the comet of our lifetimes when C/2012 S1 ISON rounds the Sun in late November and December this year when it could briefly be a daylight object and a bright naked eye comet with long dust tail all over the Christmas and New Year period, I simply can't wait to begin my adventures with this new comet and hope I will have a big image report ready for you by early 2014. It's been one heck of an adventure, thanks Pan-STARRS and farewell in your journey back through the outer solar system, perhaps some day you will leave our solar system, wander through space and enter the Oort cloud of another solar system where you will once again get pulled sun ward and put on a show for a future Earth-like planet with it's alien inhabitants admiring your tail and appreciate you for what you are.
Image slide show I put together featuring all the images on this report along with a few more documenting my comet hunting adventures between March and April. It's best to watch it at highest quality and with the larger window opened. 1980's movie fans might know the musical score, it's a dark cool atmospheric track from the very talented Brad Fiedel from the movie 'Fright Night' which I have always liked, hopefully youtube won't remove it. I hope you enjoy it and I hope it compliments the report. Thanks very much for reading.