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