Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

Comet Watch

For the past two nights, Lisa and I have been trying to get a look at Comet NEOWISE. While Fernley isn't as brightly lit as Reno/Sparks, it's still too bright to see the comet. Friday night we tried going north on NV-447. This had the advantage of putting the lights of Reno/Sparks and Fernley behind us, but there was a limit to how far we could go, as the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe have closed the road northwest of Nixon. We might have continued northeast toward Gerlach, but we decided to not chance it and instead pulled off at a convenient spot between Nixon and Wadsworth. As the sky got to full dark sometime between 9:30 and 10 PM, we managed to spot the comet with the naked eye. (We'd accidentally left the binoculars at home.) Even with the limited access on the highway, though, there was a car coming by every few minutes, obliging us to cover our eyes to try and save our night vision.

On Saturday, helped by some photography settings mentioned by Michael Siladi when he posted a photo he took, and by me and Lisa studying our camera's settings during the day for things we'd never tried before like long exposure times, we tried again, but this time we went south to Fort Churchill. The road into the park stops being paved past the park entrance but continues on as a hard (but washboarded) dirt road for around 25 km / 16 mi. About 2 km past the park entrance we found a side road with a place that looked safe enough to park. (I didn't want to get stuck in the sand driving the minivan.) This proved to be a good spot, and for the roughly two hours we were there, only two other vehicles came through the area.

There are very few lights within sight of this spot, but unlike last night, the glow of Reno/Sparks was visible over the hills north of Fort Churchill, which hindered viewing a bit, and you could also see the glow from Carson City to the west, Yerrington to the south, and even Silver Springs to the east. But eventually as it got as dark as it was going to get, and helped by last night's spotting so we knew where to look, we saw the comet. Lisa set up her tripod and worked on sighting it in the camera.


This is one of the photos that worked out, with an exposure time of 15-20 seconds at ISO 400 and (as I recall) f2.8, and I don't think the camera will go any lower than that. Exposure times longer than 20 seconds started capturing too much apparent motion of the stars, as this is only a fixed tripod, not an astronomical mount.

If you're not immediately seeing it, look for the triangle of stars just below the center of the photo and above the hills. The upper "star" is actually the comet, with its tail stretching above and to the right.

Click through the photo to enable you to zoom in and to look at the other photos that seemed to work.

Around 10:30, the comet set behind the hills and we packed up and headed home.

We've never taken these sorts of photos before. A big challenge with this camera is that you can't see enough through the viewfinder and you have to sort of guess where you should be shooting. It's not until after you've taken the long exposure that you can see what you shot.

We did remember the binoculars this time, and this made it much easier to see the comet and to make out more of its tail. Without binoculars, I could only really see it well by looking indirectly at it because of the greater sensitivity of rods (peripheral) versus cones (center of eye).

Besides the comet, there were a lot more stars than we usually can see, especially when looking away from the lights of Reno. Jupiter was quite prominent, and I now (having looked it up) understand that it was Saturn below and to the left. Pointing the binoculars at Jupiter, I think that just maybe I could see one or two of its moons, but it's hard to hold things steady enough to see.

This weekend was the first time I've ever seen a comet and its tail with my own eyes. In all other cases, I've lived in areas that are too light-polluted to see them and have not taken the time to get away from the lights of the big city. Now that I live in semi-rural northern Nevada, it's easier to get away in less than an hour. Also, now that we've found a spot where we think we can get away from the lights without also having cars coming by every few minutes, I think we'll come back again.

I'll bet it was relatively busy at the Tonopah Stargazing Park. At 7000 feet, the conditions should have been better than they were at Fort Churchill, although we noticed on our one nighttime visit that the lights of the town are starting to impinge upon the view a bit. In particular, we hope the town could convince the truck stop on US-95 to point one of its lights away from the park and more toward the highway.
Tags: comet, fort churchill, stars

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