Saturday, July 25, 2020


#565 Night of the Comet

Of course I’m talking about NEOWISE, C/2020 F3, muchachos, which has been hovering above the Northern Hemisphere’s northwestern horizon and shining at a respectable magnitude of 2. That’s down from its height, a somewhat amazing +.5 when it was in its morning apparition earlier in July and a definite naked eye object. Magnitude 2 is still darned good as comets go, however. And this week its altitude is increasing, meaning it's now possible for some of those with obstructed horizons to finally get a look at the visitor.

What’s the ground truth about this comet? It’s the best we’ve had in years—maybe since Hale Bopp departed the inner Solar System. But don’t fool yourself: Hale-Bopp wasn’t just a naked eye object; it was a naked eye object for a long, long time. And it wasn’t just bright; it was BRIGHT. At its height, it was visible in near daylight. This visitor, on the other hand, now requires binoculars to be seen if, like most of us, you are a denizen of suburbia. In fact, its position meant that even when it was at its brightest most observers needed optical aid to see much of it. If anything.

Wish I could have seen NEOWISE in its morning passage. I love morning comets—maybe because they remind me of my first one, long ago Ikeya-Seki. The stars just didn’t align for your old Uncle this time, though. As you might not be surprised to hear, it being July and me being down here in Possum Swamp, the weather, including the dawn weather, has been lousy.  But there was more to it than that; your old uncle was too worried to be much in the mood to wake up at oh-dark-thirty for comet chasing.

“Worried about what?” I was potentially exposed to the COVID 19 virus. The details don’t matter. Well, except for the fact that everybody involved was masked and wearing gloves and the place where the exposure occurred was disinfected. Those things meant I wouldn’t get sick. But I wouldn’t know that for at least ten days.

Where are you little Panstarrs?
As soon as your aged correspondent and Miss Dorothy learned what had happened, we resolved to get tested. We managed that on the Wednesday following my exposure the previous Thursday evening, which was about right time-wise according to the experts. Luckily, there is a clinic right up the road from Hickory Ridge, a drive-in style setup:  make an appointment, drive up to the facility, wait in your vehicle till called on your phone, drive into the large tent where the testing takes place.

All this happened fairly quickly considering the fact that our poor state is facing a huge spike in cases. About an hour after we arrived, one of the heroic nurses was at my car window taking my temperature and my blood oxygen level. The bad? I was running a modest fever. The good? My blood oxygen level was fine, which I was told is more important than your temperature. Soon, a nurse had a swab up my nose. Despite what you may have heard, that is uncomfortable but not painful. I liken it to the feeling you’d get as a kid when you accidentally inhaled some heavily chlorinated pool water.

Next? Back home at the New Manse, there was nothing to do but wait and see. The fever had been worrying, but I was pretty sure I had a mild sinus infection. At any rate, Miss D. had ordered one of those gun-like infrared thermometers and a pulse-oxy meter from Amazon. Both insisted I was fine. Blood oxygen in the high 90s and no more fever. Of course, your old Unk being the way he is, that didn’t help. Every morning I’d awaken with a slightly scratchy throat (from a night in the air conditioning) and would be sure I had IT.

We continued to be symptom free, and five days after we were tested the results came in:  NEGATIVE. In a few more days, the two weeks of our self-quarantine were up and I was a free man. Well, free enough to at least journey to Publix at 7 a.m. once a week for groceries and to the comic book store on Wednesdays to clear my box. The whole thing had spooked me, and other than that I am sticking close to home. Let this be a cautionary tale:  the only reason, I’m convinced, I wasn’t sickened and maybe worse (at my age I am definitely an “elevated risk” kinda guy) was the mask, the gloves, social distancing, and the disinfecting we did. I hope you also do these things, muchachos. If you are like most amateur astronomers and like me, you are not in the spring chicken demographic and do not want to play around with this stuff.

Be that as it may; the end of my quarantine also brought a temporary lifting of the early evening clouds—Neo had now moved into the evening sky. I was ready to tackle another comet in a long string of “my” comets. But how, exactly, would I do that?

The finished mount did look funky.
While I wouldn’t have a prayer of seeing anything close to Neo’s tail’s full extent of 15-degrees from suburbia, I needed to maximize my field of view in order to see as much of it as I could. I’ve got several short focal length refractors…but…one thing I’ve learned from my decades of comet chasing is that when it comes to to the hairy stars the magic word is “binoculars.”

Next question? Which binoculars? Over many years of (occasionally) serious observing, I’ve accumulated numerous pairs of glasses. I’ve never considered myself a real binocular fan, but, like cats, they’ve just come to me:  everything from a sophisticated pair of 40mm roof prism binocs, to the everyday bread-and-butter 10x50s, to my big honkin’ Zhumell Tachyon 25x100s.

Yeah, 100mm binoculars, the “six-inch refractor” of the binocular game. We all want ‘em—or think we do. To make a long story short, about nine years ago I found you could buy a pair of Chinese 25x100s for about 250 bucks. Not only that; they were garnering a reputation for excellent optics. Only 250 for 4-inch binoculars? Yep. Naturally I ordered a pair and found them to be excellent optically and at least good mechanically (you can still buy the Tachyons, but the price is about double what it was a decade ago).

The thing about 100mm binoculars…well the things? They are great on the sky. Not only do they obviously gather a lot of light; they have enough power to make them more usable in compromised skies than, say, 7x binoculars. I’ve even resolved the rings of Saturn with ‘em with fair ease. That’s the good thing. The bad thing is that when you pass 70mms, binoculars’ weight increases exponentially. You might conceivably be able to hand-hold 80mm glasses for short periods. 100mms? Fuhgeddabout it. And a tripod, even a big, heavy video tripod, ain’t good enough. You need a genuine binocular mount.

And there are some very good binocular mounts out there. Like those sold by Oberwerk (nee But they don’t come cheap, and you simply cannot compromise when it comes to 100mm binoculars. “Good enough” won’t do. The problem was that, as you well know, Unk is a stingy soul and was even before he retired. The solution came fairly quickly, though, in the form of the EZ Binocular Mount kit.

Out on the CAV field.
Now, I’m normally wary of stuff like this, having been burned a time or two on amateur astronomy and amateur radio garage-style kits. But this was different; the seller was Pete Peterson (of Buck’s Gears fame), and I knew he knew his stuff. 

The assembly of the kit is a story in itself, which you can read about here—as you may know, Unk’s mechanical skills are somewhat lacking. I got it together successfully with the assistance of Miss Dorothy, but was still a little skeptical. Let’s face it; it looks funky. You’d never mistake it for anything but a kit. Ah, but when you mount those big glasses on it out in the dark, it’s a different story. The Peterson EZ binocular kit works better than any binocular mount I have ever used, big or small. If my backyard experiences weren’t enough to convince me, using the EZ on Comet Panstarrs back in 2013 sure did.

So, the Zhumells have gotten a lot of use over the nine years I’ve owned them? Not really. The problem is that even 25x binoculars need a dark sky to really strut their stuff. Oh, they can do alright in the typical compromised backyard…but given the fact that you have to set up the mount to use them at all, it’s really no more labor intensive to assemble a telescope. And much as I love binoculars, there’s simply no doubt a scope is a more versatile and better choice most of the time.

But not all the time. The exception is when a comet is in the sky. Again, there is nothing, muchachos, and I do mean nothing, that will give you a better look at a comet than big binos. Not only do you have a wide field and plenty of light gathering power, you get that 3D effect inherent in binoculars. There’s also the fact that it’s just more comfortable to use both eyes than one. So, I grabbed the Zhumells' case and started hunting for the EZ mount.

However, it was hot, muggy, buggy, and your Unk was feeling lazy. Of course, I still have the Peterson mount, but I haven’t used it since we moved out here to the suburbs, and knew it was in parts and pieces in several boxes that are located somewhere. I decided to cheat. I’ve got a big enough Manfrotto camera tripod, and since the comet would be close to the horizon, surely that would be good enough, wouldn’t it?

ALCON 2003
Luckily, your silly old uncle had the sense to try this idea out in the daytime. At first, it looked like it might work…the binoculars went on the tripod without a fuss and didn’t seem that shaky. The trouble came when I thought I’d try altitude adjustment. There was just no way I could move the glasses up or down in altitude safely. Even balanced as well as I could balance them, it was evident if I let off on the altitude tension on the tripod even a small amount too much, the Tachyons were likely to crash into the tripod and maybe bring the whole works down.

Well, alrighty then. No 100mm binoculars for NEOWISE. We have one of Explore Scientific’s 100mm short focal length achromatic refractors here. On the SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth tripod it’s not much of a pain to set up, and it ought to perform well on the comet. But I found myself fixated on binoculars. As above, they really are the perfect instrument for comet viewing (and comet hunting…like many others, the late, great Comet Hyakutake was discovered with giant binoculars). And then the solution came to me:  the good, old Burgess binoculars.

As y’all have probably divined, I am not the world’s biggest supporter of the Astronomical League. We can talk about that some Sunday perhaps, but for now I’ll just say that whatever my feelings about the AL, I had a great time speaking at the organization’s 2003 convention in Nashville. What went on at the Embassy Suites hotel all those years ago (seems like just yesterday to your aging correspondent)? Well, in addition to talks, dinners, even a little video observing in the parking lot, and the usual things found at conventions of all kinds, there were vendors—folks selling astrostuff.

Now, in those days, Unk was still very definitely an astronomy gear junkie. There was simply no way I’d go home without something new. But what?  Well, there was Bill Burgess (who is still in the astronomy business and doing well, I hear) with his wares. Which included a pair of 15x70 binos he was offering for—get this—50 bucks. Trying them out in the dealer room, it was obvious they were well built and seemed good optically (the stars are, of course, the only true test for astronomy binoculars). At any rate, how could I go wrong for fifty bucks?

I couldn’t, as tests in the front yard of good, old Chaos Manor South (remember those hallowed halls, muchachos?) showed when Dorothy and I got home. The humble Burgesses soon became my go-to glasses. In addition to being high in quality and rugged, their strength was and is that they offer more light gathering power than the usual 10x50s, but in a package that is reasonably hand-holdable. Unlike 80s, I can use these 70s for extended periods effectively and without strain.

The legendary Burgess 15x70s.
So, the 70mms it would be. When night fell, finally (curse this DST) I hied myself out on the deck and faced my nice, low northwestern horizon. The stars of the dipper asterism were glimmering through the inevitable haze. I had loaded NEOWISE into Stellarium earlier that day and knew approximately where to look. “Little closer to the horizon…just a smidge west…little more…almost there…almost there…” And I saw…NUTTIN’ HONEY. Well, I saw the undersides of clouds.

There things remained for several days. Which was not all bad. While I waited for semi-clear conditions, the comet continued to rise higher above the horizon though it was dimming a bit. Finally, early last week, I got what I reckoned might be my last crack at NEOWISE what with a storm churning up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Out to the deck me and the Burgesses went again. Same routine:  scan down from the bowl of the dipper while moving to the west. And there is it was. My lasting impression of this one? It was a perfect little comet in the Burgesses with a tiny head, some coma visible, and a cute little tail that extended farther than I thought it would in the nasty skies. A friend, a talented observer, managed to see the comet much better than I did from darker skies, and was able to glimpse the ion tail. Me? No way, but I was satisfied with what I’d seen. Which was admittedly better than what I saw of Comet Ikeya-Seki all those decades ago. Frankly, I’ve never seen a bad comet, y’all, and this was most assuredly a good one. Hope you saw her or get to see her before she is gone.

What next? Obviously, I need to proceed to night three of the New Herschel Project. But as you can probably tell from the above, the weather down here in the Swamp is unlikely to allow that anytime soon. So, it’s, as Rod’s Mama used to tell him frequently when he wanted something, a great, big “We’ll see.”  

A friend talked me into going to the desert, west of Salt Lake City, to see and photograph the comet. I have never bothered with comets before, but when I saw the long tail with just my eyes, I was impressed. I also mounted my camera with a long lens on my telescope and got some surprisingly good photos. I guess you could say I am a comet fan now.
As you mentioned Chaos Manor South. It reminded me to ask if you are a Jerry Pournelle fan?
Just finished reading the new Janassaries book 4 and it took me back to my student days of the 80s when I read the first three. Also an excellent read.

Hi Daz:

I was a big fan of Jerry and his Chaos Manor (the second Chaos Manor; the first belonged to a renowned jazz historian). I should reread Mote one of these days. :)

Uncle Rod
Glad you got to see it. Yes, it was a nice, cute comet. My astrophotos of the comet drew vacuum, but I GOT PICTURES!

Plague has us all on edge. Tired of working from home.

Fleep KA4KOE
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