Most of us have been on a wild goose chase, but what about a wild comet chase?
My children are well aware of my passion for taking lightning pictures. However, they frequently pass along tips about other phenomenon of nature they think I might enjoy photographing.
Weeks before last May’s partial eclipse of the sun, my son, Jacob, began advising me about it. As the event neared he was encouraging me to scope out potential sites from which to take photos.
Without Jacob’s heads-up I might not have known about the eclipse, let alone given much thought to trying to photograph it. As it turned out, I wound up with some decent shots of an event that doesn’t occur every day, at least in Northeast Missouri.
Spring forward to earlier this month when another of my sons, Caleb, shot me an e-mail about a comet – Pan-STARRS – that was due to be visible to the naked eye in the western sky of the northern hemisphere beginning last week.
The comet, whose unusual name came from the telescopic survey that first spotted it – Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System - in June 2011, was making its closest approach to the sun in over a thousand centuries. Caleb thought I might enjoy seeing, if not photographing the comet that was predicted to be approximately as bright as stars in the Big Dipper.
I’d planned to go out last Tuesday, the first night it was due to be visible, but clouds and blowing snow made going out seem like a waste of time.
On Wednesday, however, with the sky virtually free of clouds, I ventured out shortly after sunset with my 16-year-old daughter, Anna, in tow. I picked a spot just north of Hannibal Regional Hospital, which provided an open view of the western sky that featured a beautiful crescent moon.
We weren’t there long before I spotted something white hanging in the darkening sky, in the approximate location where photos I’d seen on the Internet had placed the comet. I grabbed the binoculars I’d brought along and zoomed in for a closer look. I located the object that seemed to be growing darker.
Lowering the binoculars, I looked heavenward again in the hope of pointing out my discovering to Anna. But try as I might, I could not find it again. Something wasn’t right. Comet’s just don’t disappear, I thought.
It didn’t hit me until later, when I saw the blinking lights of a jet passing silently through the night sky, that what I’d seen was a jet’s contrail that shown white as it captured the final few rays of sunshine.
We sat there for about a half an hour. At one point I stepped out of the car in the hope of seeing more. Anna remained in the warm car, content with the view she had of the star-filled sky. Shortly before 8 p.m., we set out for home, confident there was nothing out of the ordinary in the heavens to see.
After arriving home, I got on the Internet to see if others were having the same problem I’d had. But I immediately found pictures posted of the comet.
With my wife, Nancy, willing to venture out with me, I gathered all my camera gear and set out again. This time we found an even darker spot from which to scan the sky, but the end result was the same – no comet.
My frustration at having not been able to see the comet was lessened somewhat the next day when I received an e-mail from Caleb, who reported not seeing Pan-STARRS either.
While typically one might hope to see one or two comets a decade, 2013 will feature two. Another, that reportedly will shine brighter than the full moon, is expected in late November. I’m sure by then I’ll be ready to risk another wild comet chase.