- I tried to see the famous green comet in the night skies, far from the city, last weekend.
- It was much harder than I expected, even with advice from a pro, because I didn’t plan ahead enough.
- The moon outshined most of the stars, and I couldn’t locate the faint comet, even with binoculars.
Only a tiny fraction of the human population will ever see the green comet screaming past Earth this month. I tried to become one of them, but it was way more difficult than I expected.
I’ve heard (and written) a lot of hype about this comet, called C/2022 E3 (ZTF), or Comet ZTF for short. The ball of frozen gas and dust returned for the first time since the last Ice Age. This weekend it’s zooming past Mars, which is the last good opportunity to spot it before it fades into the distance for another 50,000 years.
I was already going camping at Pinnacles National Park last weekend, and I thought I would try to spot the rare celestial visitor myself.
Pinnacles isn’t an official dark-sky sanctuary, but it is several hours from the big cities of San Jose and San Francisco, and you can usually see lots of stars among its volcanic cliffs.
I thought my chances were pretty good. Maybe that was my first mistake.
I’ve never tried to locate a particular object in the night sky before, so I reached out to Dan Bartlett, an astrophotographer who lives in California, to ask for advice. He’s been taking beautiful photos of the comet, like this one:
I knew I wouldn’t see anything that clear. He has a telescope set up in the mountains to get those views. But I wanted to get as close as I could without spending a ton of money.
“It will be quite large, and nearly a quarter of the field in your binoculars,” Bartlett told me in an email.
If that was the case, I thought I couldn’t miss it.
He said binoculars were essential, so I stopped at REI to buy a pair. Per his advice and some astronomy blogs I read online, I chose a $120 pair labeled as 8 x 42 — the first number indicating their magnification power, and the second measuring the diameter of the objective lenses in millimeters.
Unfortunately, that would not be enough to spot the comet. I hoped I would at least catch a grainy green glow in the night sky, but I completely failed.
Finding faint objects in the sky is harder than I thought. It’s not something to do at the last minute, with little planning and no experience.
2 things I did right: dressed for the weather and downloaded a constellations app
I can at least congratulate myself for staying warm. The forecast showed it would drop as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit at Pinnacles, and I run cold, so I packed lots of layers and a warm hat, socks, and a scarf.
I also grabbed foot warmers and a rechargeable hand warmer I got for Christmas.
I also foresaw another problem that could’ve sent me to my tent early: I don’t have experience locating any celestial objects other than the moon and the Big Dipper. I would need to find Mars and the star Capella in order to identify the right area to search for the comet.
Bartlett said Sky Safari was the “best cell phone app out there without a doubt.” So I paid $4.99 to download it. The app used GPS to label constellations, planets, and stars as I moved my phone camera across the sky.
It helped me find Mars quickly — the orange glow was a dead giveaway, but it would’ve taken me longer to scan the sky on my own. I probably wouldn’t have been able to spot Capella at all without Sky Safari.
Mistake No. 1: choosing a night when the moon would be bright
I thought I would have to wake up before dawn to avoid the moon, but it turned out that the moon would be in the sky overnight on Friday until nearly 7 a.m. So I might as well view the comet at a reasonable hour, Bartlett told me.
That seemed like great news, since I am not a morning person and I especially dislike waking up before the sun. But I would’ve been better off waking up early for a moonless dawn.
“The moon will be extremely bright and interfering. No way around this,” Bartlett said. “It’s as if you decided to view the comet from a medium size city.”
He was more right than I realized.
Forget the comet — there weren’t even that many stars visible. It was almost as if I hadn’t left the city. Even when I kept the moon to my back and gave my eyes 15 minutes to adjust, I didn’t see much. Every time I did glance at the moon, it reset my eyes and I had to let them adjust again.
Thin wisps of cloud floating across the sky probably made it even worse.
Mistake No. 2: not rehearsing before I lost internet
That night, Comet ZTF was supposed to be 5 degrees north of the star Capella, which you can find by first identifying Mars. Locating Capella and looking north of it was easy. But what does 5 degrees mean?
I realized too late that I didn’t remember and I hadn’t written it down. I had no service at Pinnacles, so I couldn’t Google it. I knew the general area where the comet was supposed to be, but not how big or small that area was. So I scanned far and wide around Capella, hoping I would hit the jackpot.
I saw plenty of satellites and planes, but no comet.
One of the people camping with me mentioned that she had heard the comet would be between the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper. That was a huge space, and I couldn’t fact-check her without the internet, but it tracked with what Bartlett had told me.
That helped me pinpoint what may have been the problem: The space between Big Dipper and Capella passed right through a big halo of light encircling the moon. I couldn’t see any stars in that bright ring.
As the night wore on, I began to lose hope. At one point, my camping companions pointed out a plane streaking past the moon, leaving a trail of condensation in its wake. They joked that it was the comet.
I took a picture so I would at least have something to show for my efforts. Don’t let that green spot in the photo excite you — it’s just a glitch in my phone camera.
Mistake No. 3: thinking I could take photos with my phone through my binoculars
Even with no comet, I enjoyed how much clearer and better resolved the stars appeared through my binoculars. I wanted to share the view, and I had seen reviews for the binoculars online where people took photos by holding their phone camera to the lens.
I tried to do the same, but all the pictures came out like this:
The stars didn’t show up at all. Taking photos directly of the sky — no binoculars — yielded slightly better results:
If I had spotted the green comet, there’s no way I would’ve been able to capture it on my iPhone X.
The next morning, in the sunlight, I tried the technique again with a clearer subject: trees on a hillside. It still didn’t work.
After totally fumbling my attempt at amateur astronomy, I have even more respect for the planning, calculating, and patience that goes into it.
Who knows, maybe I looked right at the green comet and didn’t recognize it because it was too faint. But next time I go scouting for celestial objects, I’ll do a lot more preparation. If I can, I’ll bring someone who knows what they’re doing.