University Lowbrow Astronomers


by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections:  February, 1997.

After reading Stephen James O’Meara’s article High-Power Comet Observing in February’s Sky & Telescope magazine (pgs. 100-101) I resolved to keep a well documented sketch record of Comet Hale-Bopp’s perihelion passage. This first view is a word picture.

David Levy’s much quoted comparison of comets and cats indicates that - “cats and comets have tails and do exactly what they want”. I would add, if you want to see a comet you have to do it when the comet decides to make itself visible, even if that means before dawn in the dead of winter.

Having previously done early morning comet observing I can tell you it is not easy. Your mind and body are fast a sleep when the alarm clock wakes you well before your normal hour. You jump into your clothes trying to remember why some idiot set the alarm for hours before the usual time. Your make a cup of coffee and drag out your observing stuff, all the while your mind is still asleep. You begin your observing run trying to reorient yourself to the stars which moved well into the next season since last night. I usually start my observing run from a bright star and star-hop my way to the comet. In October of 1996, I was observing Comet De Vico in the early morning hours.  Knowing the position of this comet from the previous night’s study; I knew locating this 6 mag. comet would be a piece of cake. I commenced my observing run with out my usual Telrad. This is easy I thought. It’s right near Capella. After 10 minutes I ran in the house to get the Telrad. After 10 more minutes I ran inside and grabbed the binoculars. After lying on my back, binoculars in hand, and desperately trying to find Capella I realized that I wasn’t even in the right constellation ! Such are the pit-falls of early morning observing.

People ask me, from time to time, how to view a significant astronomical event (read “a bright” object that gets a lot of press). With Comet Hale-Bopp starting to get some press coverage a colleague asked how and were to see this comet. Having previously attempted to view this comet on one of the few, and I mean few, clear mornings on January 6th I realized that I tried to look for this comet too early in the morning. This is a “Lazy Man’s Comet” , I indicated to my friend. Just look for it at the beginning of morning’s twilight and use a finder chart. January and February Sky & Telescope has printed some excellent charts in Fred Schaaf’s Stars & Planets section.

Well, on the morning of January 17th with the temperature at a cool minus 4 degrees the sky was clear. The second clear morning sky this year. The alarm goes off and I get up to check the conditions of the sky from the safety of my house. While it is clear overhead, it is murky on the eastern front. I run down stairs to grab the binoculars hopping not to wake the Ms. After examining the eastern sky I realize that no stars are visible in this part of the sky. I decide to study the charts while waiting for the clouds to move out, hopefully before dawn. I perform some celestial navigation. Lets see, were is the Summer Triangle. I find Vega and confirm it by checking for Epsilon Lyra. Then locating Deneb I plot my way down the neck of the swan to Albireo. Knowing Comet Hale-Bopp is above Altair, the third member of the Summer Triangle. At this time I realize it is time to move to a window that is better optimized from looking due east and low on the horizon for this star. The only window is right near were the Ms is sleeping. Ow well, once again I think “Sure hope I don’t wake her” and proceed to open the blinds.  As luck would have it the clouds in the east are starting to move out. At approximately 6:40 am I locate Altair, off-set as indicated on the finder chart and Voila’ ! There is the comet. Shinning with an unmistakable fuzzy glow in the binoculars well up above 10 degrees.

With the Sun now having noticeable effect on the morning’s darkness I decide to race downstairs and get the 85 mm finder scope on this comet. Still in my pajamas I throw on my boots and coat and attach the small scope to a tripod.  Then out into the minus 4 degree temperature I go. A neighbor’s dog immediately indicates his displeasure with my arrival on the driveway and runs off to do his thing in somebody else’s yard. This is madness I think; it’s dark, I’m outside in my pajamas, in minus 4 degree temperature, with a dog about to attack, and I am looking over my neighbor’s house with a telescope.  I fumble some more with the scope (now how do I tighten this thing down to the tripod ?). Finally, I some how manage to locate the comet and bring it to focus. The sky is still murky but there it is, plain as well a comet on a cold January morning. With a star like nucleus imbedded in a nice little coma, and suggestions of a faint text book tail I think - “I gotta do more of this”.  Almost immediately the Sun brings this observing run to a close. I think to myself, not a bad way to start the day of your 45th birthday - OLD Lazy Man’s Comet.


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