Finally! Clear Skies For Comet ISON – Here’s What I Saw

Comet ISON and Mercury over Lake Superior seen from Skyline Parkway in Duluth, Minn. USA this morning Nov. 22, 2013. The photo gives a good impression of how the comet looked in 10×50 binoculars under a very clear, twilit sky. Credit: Bob King

After a week of vigilance and three false-alarm 5 a.m. wakeups, the sky finally cleared this morning for a good view of Comet ISON. Still, nature wasn’t going to let me off easy. 20 mph winds blew the scope around, the mirror was next to impossible to collimate and the temperature got down to 10 F, but yes, the nearly cloudless sky made it all worthwhile.

Another view of the comet taken with a 200mm lens this morning Nov. 22, 2013. Credit: Bob King

Before Comet ISON rose, Comet Lovejoy made for a most impressive sight in the little constellation Canes Venatici just off the Handle of the Big Dipper. To my surprise it was plainly visible with the naked eye once you knew just where to look – even in bright moonlight. I estimated the fuzzball at magnitude 4.5. Through 10×50 binoculars a tail almost 2 degrees long shot straight out back toward the west.

With the temperature cooling to just 10 degrees F (-12 C), the sight of dawn below Spica in the east around 5:45 a.m. make the morning cheerier. Then Mercury appeared. I knew ISON would poke out some 5 degrees to its right, but was a bit taken aback when I picked it up in the 10x50s.

The comet looked weak, not particularly bright, but very comet-y with a star-like head and thin, faint tail pointing back to the northwest. While it was easy to see, I wouldn’t say it was bright – delicate might be the best way to describe it. I estimated ISON’s brightness at about magnitude 3.5.

Comet Lovejoy was bright enough to pick up with a 35mm lens and 30-second exposure in bright moonlight this morning. Credit: Bob King

Through a 15-inch telescope, the comet’s head glowed blue-green and I could just discern the famous “wings” photographed so well by dedicated amateur astronomers recently. For fun I whipped out an inexpensive digital point-and-shoot camera and shot a few frames of ISON through the eyepiece.

Animation of Comet ISON from pictures taken in the higher-resolution HI-1 camera on NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft this week. White waves coming from the right are denser areas in the solar wind which cause Comet Encke’s tail to ripple. Using comet tails as tracers can provide valuable data about solar wind conditions near the sun. Credit: Karl Battams/NASA/STEREO/CIOC

I was able to hold onto the comet in binoculars until about 6:40 a.m. or 40 minutes before sunrise. Mercury was much easier to see than Comet ISON, and for a special end-of-observing treat, Saturn came up below Mercury. Even though the image flapped and shimmered in the turbulent air, it was my first sight of the planets and its pretty rings this season.

The finest Comet ISON scenic shot I’ve seen to date. It was taken by Juan Carlos Casado from up on a mountaintop on the island of Gran Canaria from the Observatorio del Teide (IAC) Nov. 21, 2013. Mercury is seen through clouds at lower left.

I’ve saved the best for last. This photo was taken yesterday morning Nov. 21 by Juan Carlos Casado of Spain. Nice!

17 Responses

  1. Dave Gallant

    Nice Bob…glad you got to see it after a week of trying! I had the same view as you this morning, but the low lying clouds were just high enough to obsecure Mercury and the comet. Looking like clear skies in the morning Saturday, so will try one last time. Weather has been terrible here. Havn’t seen a clear night in weeks.

      1. Dave Gallant

        We’ll compare notes! I never even thought this morning to look up and try for Lovejoy. I do that in the morning for sure…sun is busting out now as I type this…time to make sure the camera batteries are charged! 9 or 10 F in the AM, with a windchill…oh the things us amateurs do!!

        1. astrobob

          Very exciting Dave. I know how you feel. I had a hard time sleeping last night. And like you, I kept an extra battery in my pocket. Yeah, we’re nuts.

          1. Giorgio Rizzarelli

            I join to the congrats Bob! I like especially the one you took at 200mm. Also here in Trieste terrible weather (with possibly clear in weekend), low clouds, windchill, extra battery and few sleep… not different here, we’re all nuts Earthlings 🙂 Clear skies to everyone!

          2. astrobob

            Thank you Giorgio and may your skies clear soon! We all know what it’s like to sit out a cloudy spell when the sky brings us gifts.

  2. Edward M. Boll

    ISON reaching 1000 degree temps (in less than 2 days?) is still holding together in one piece. Unfortunately, it has sunk into the twilight deep enough to look unimpressive, even though unusually bright for a comet. I expect it to put on a better show, after it’s run through the blast furnace on Thursday.

    1. astrobob

      You’re right. It’s being overtaken by twilight without surging enough in brightness to fully compensate. Hopefully that changes after perihelion.

  3. Dave Gallant

    Skunked by the low lying clouds again! Well that’s all she wrote for us here. Let’s hope she survives the trip round and we see her on the other side!!

    1. astrobob

      Sorry to hear it. I also had trouble with a very low cloud bank over the the lake, so I drove inland. Although the comet cleared the trees and I’m sure it was in my 10×50 binocular field, it just couldn’t compete against twilight. I never saw it.

  4. Edward M. Boll

    Encke rose about 11 minutes before ISON this morning, according to my calculations using the right ascension and declination. But, being it is 3-4 magnitudes dimmer, it is much harder to see.

    1. astrobob

      Just got in after trying to see it a last time before perihelion. It was not visible in 10x50s – twilight too bright by the time the comet rose into view.

      1. Edward M. Boll

        Then, I do not feel so bad, not seeing it this morning. It sure was cold 2 degrees with a 9 below windchill. I was only out all bundled up for 7 minutes. I do not expect to see ISON now till around Thanksgiving. But you never know. It could flare up any morning. So, I plan to be out every clear morning closer to sunrise. There are stars and planets to enjoy. And if your seeing is right and binoculars focused, one can see Lovejoy even in the moonlight twilight.

  5. Phil A.

    Here too Bob, but am enjoying Lovejoy, and the return of Mercury and Saturn too- although have not myself seen the return of saturn as yet.
    Thanks for the Great Info!.

  6. Scott McGillivray

    I’m happy you saw it, Bob! Using your guide and a couple of clear mornings in Vancouver, BC, I got a great look in my 6″ Cassegrain. I captured some RAW data with a Meade DSI and it’s definitely there, but I have never learned to process astro images… this weekend I will learn!

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