We have been watching Comet PanSTARRS for the last week and it has been fascinating to see it change.
When the comet first appeared high enough in the night sky to be seen, around the third week in March, it was quite easy to view with the unaided eye, from my front porch with local streetlights on. By April 4 the comet could barely be seen without binoculars.
On April 4the comet was only three degrees away from the Andromeda Galaxy. This is very rare. I have never tried to photograph a galaxy and a comet at the same time before.
Where is the best location to do this? Did I hear someone say road trip?
The choice was simple: head west-northwest and look for a nice clean plateau to set up the camera and binoculars. I headed out on the old Alaska Highway towards Fairbanks about 50 kilometres and found a perfect open patch just off the emergency lane on the highway.
Arriving there was an adventure. When the road sign says, “Slow down, there is a bump ahead,” it is not kidding.
Upon arrival there was not a single star to be seen and the sun was still illuminating the distant razor-sharp mountain peaks from behind, making for an incredible sight.
By 9:30 p.m. Jupiter was out, but by 10:30 p.m. I was beginning to wonder if I had picked the right location. It turns out my location was better than I had first realized. By 11:30 p.m. the constellation Andromeda and the comet were visible through binoculars.
As I waited for the sky to darken on the northwestern horizon I took a quick sky tour. What an amazing dark sky. You could see stars from horizon to horizon. Orion was floating across the distant mountain peaks, ever so slowly heading out of view.
There was no moonlight, which made for fabulous observing conditions. Even through my trusty 10×50 binoculars there was plenty to see: galaxies, nebulas, and star clusters aplenty, even the constellation Lyra was rising off the far horizon.
Now it was time to shoot. First we setup the gear, next we ran a couple of wide-angle shots for test purposes. Because I only had my photo tripod, I did not know quite what to expect.
We loaded the 100 — 400 mm telephoto lens and stepped up the power to 200mm and that seemed about the most I could do, even at ISO 6400 for 20 seconds. Still, looking at the comet and the galaxy side-by-side was awesome and photographing it was a privilege.
The next two hours were spent experimenting with different ISO, shutter speeds, and F-stops — trying to find the best combination. It looked like I had at least a few good shots so it was time to wrap it up. It was around -20°C, with a stiff wind. Even with a parka, gloves, and a toque, I was starting to freeze.
I was about to take my camera off the tripod when I caught glimmer of aurora struggling to put on a show. It was not a strong display but I had a foreground that made for excellent photographs.
It was now well after 2 a.m. and I still had the drive home to contend with. One more surprise awaited.
The next day, as I was cleaning up my photos I noticed that I captured a low flying meteor or fireball very close to the horizon.
Comet PanSTARRS will be an easy binocular target for the next couple of weeks, so take some time and a star chart and check it out for yourself.