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Observing Comets

With the world’s best observing software

Seeing a comet visually is more difficult than the pretty pictures make it appear. Standing next to the photographer, few people would have noticed this comet, and binoculars were required for most to see it at all. This image was captured by SkyTools user Ernie Parker on March 14 2013 at StargateCOlorado Observatory in Trinidad, CO.

Comets Don't Have to be Famous

For decades amateur astronomers have simply sat by until the news media anointed a bright comet to observe. Yet on just about any clear night, at least one comet is visible in a 4-inch telescope, and some months there are many more. There are comets that are even visible to the naked eye and easily seen in binoculars without becoming fodder for the news media. 

Many people enjoy hunting down fuzzy deep sky objects in their telescopes. These objects become like old friends that can be retuned to again and again; always there just as before. Telescopic comets are like deep sky objects, but they move, carrying you with them to new star fields. Comets change in size and shape, and you never know what you will find from night to night. You could be the first to discover that a comet has brightened overnight, or disappeared forever. 

Historically all but the brightest comets have been difficult to observe, partly because the astronomical news media could not deliver observing information quickly enough. The web and astronomy software has solved that problem, but until recently one obstacle remained. There was no means of predicting which comets were visible in a given telescope under a given set of observing conditions. Unlike stars, the magnitude of a comet is not a reliable indicator of how visible it is. This is where SkyTools 3 comes in.

Our Story of Comet PANSTARRS

A lot of people in the northern hemisphere missed comet PANSTARRS in March 2013 because they weren't able to find it.  For those who did spot it, it was a view they will not soon forget, particularly on the night when it was paired with the crescent moon. Sadly, for months afterward PANSTARRS was easily visible in small telescopes, but with the media hype over, many didn’t realize it. Even the major magazines and web sites failed to fully convey when, where and how people needed to look to see it. Their over-simple finder charts and off-the-hip advice failed because PANSTARRS was rather unlike other recent comets. For many observers it was SkyTools that made the difference in observing it successfully.

When I began planning for PANSTARRS myself, it became clear that what SkyTools was recommending was at odds with the advice of the experts. Was SkyTools somehow failing for this comet? Or did SkyTools know something the experts didn’t?

Most people were looking for a large bright comet, but PANSTARRS was quite small, and according to SkyTools, they were looking too soon in the week and too early in the evening.

Sure enough, even expert observers had difficulty finding PANSTARRS in the first few days. I waited until the first night that SkyTools recommended and then I invited friends and relatives out to an overlook with a good view of the western horizon. When we arrived, there were some people nearby with a telescope. They were packing up, complaining that they had not been able to find the comet. Before they could get their scope in the car I had found it in my binoculars. I showed them where to look and everyone had a good view.

As it set on the horizon, I was struck by how bright and persistent the sunset was in the area of the comet. Much of the rest of the sky had become dark, but the comet was still bathed in brilliant colors just before passing below the horizon. The bright sunglow near the comet was what made it so difficult to spot.

Science Saves the Day

Comet PANSTARRS may have been SkyTools’ finest moment. What made predicting the visibility of PANSTARRS difficult was the combined impact of light pollution, moonlight, and sunset glow. The combination of these factors overwhelmed the predictions of most experts based on their previous experience alone. But SkyTools accurately weighed each of these factors in its scientific model, telling users exactly where and most importantly, when to look. This is something no other software can do.  

Greg Crinklaw — Developer of SkyTools 

March 12 was a memorable night for many, as the nearby thin crescent moon pointed the way to the comet and, for some, stole the show.  This image was captured by SkyTools user Joe Morris at Dos Cabezas Mountains near San Simon, AZ. He used a Nikon 180mm lens at f4 that was attached to a Canon Rebel XT camera on a tripod.  

SkyTools user Al Tuttle obtained this amazing image of comet PANSTARRS on April 13, 2013 from Sun Lakes State Park in central Washington. This was over a month after PANSTARRS dropped off most people’s radar.  

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Read more about SkyTools 3

Read about the SkyTools 3 exclusive features for Comet Observing

Guide to Planning for Comet ISON using SkyTools 3