Thursday, March 14, 2013

My Plan B Faux Comet Pan-STARRS Photograph

My Plan B Faux Comet Pan-STARRS Photograph

We set off on a family walk at sunset tonight to look for Comet Pan-STARRS, probably our one weather window for viewing it this week. The idea was to spot the comet on our way back, when we'd be facing west about 40 minutes after sunset. We were well equipped with binoculars, cameras, tripod and -- most important -- instructions and a diagram of where to spot the little space traveler, i.e., a little above the crescent moon and a little to the left.

I've learned from experience that, when it comes to amateur astrophotography, things seldom go as planned and it's always best to have a robust, easily executed Plan B. This was it -- a target of opportunity that presented itself, a jet contrail photographed just after sunset and later tweaked a bit in Photoshop.

We tried hard to see the comet, we really did. If wishful thinking could have done the job, it would have been there above and to the left of the moon, just as the diagram showed. But it wasn't. We were about to give up (no big deal, there's a supposedly much more spectacular comet due to arrive in late autumn) and head back to the car.

Then we saw some people looking up, holding binoculars and exclaiming, "There it is!" And it was. They showed us where to look -- not up and to the left, but rather down and to the right. (So much for my instructions.) It was closer to the horizon than the moon and at the upper edge of a haze layer, which made it fade in and out of view. But we saw it -- a tiny, underwhelming faded orange ball with an even dimmer tail. It could only be seen with the binoculars.

I could have set up the tripod and tried to get a shot, but from our vantage point there was no detail on the horizon that would make for an interesting photo. Plus, my fingers were getting cold, and I was suffering from a severe sense of anticlimax. Besides, I had my Plan B photo that would help preserve the memory of our outing.

Just one thing: Next time I try to photograph an astronomical event, I'll make a point of not relying on just a single source found on the Internet. Nobody's perfect, not even on the Internet.

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