April is Astronomy Month

April is astronomy month! Astronomy is the study of everything beyond the earth’s atmosphere (more or less), and it’s a science. It is also a way of understanding and appreciating the beauty and complexity of nature in a way that is both rich with experiences and endlessly fascinating. Many people equate astronomy with telescopes, but it’s not necessary to have a telescope – or even use one – to appreciate the sky and even to photograph its beauty. Here’s a case in point, a photo of the western sky over Lake Huron that captures hundreds of stars too faint to see with the naked eye, and also a famous galaxy and a current comet!


M42 (the Andromeda Galaxy)and Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) appear together in the centre of this frame, taken an hour after sunset above Lake Huron on Friday 5 April 2013, from just south of the Pine River, Ontario. A 30 second exposure with a Nikon D7000 camera and Tamron 24-280 mm lens. ISO 800, f/3/5, 24 mm focal length.

For weeks I’ve been hoping to get some photos of Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) and I finally got some satisfying shots on the evening of Friday 5 April 2013. I kept track of the clear sky charts for Ontario that day, and, realizing that the comet was getting close to the Andromeda Galaxy (so should be easier to find) and that it was setting soon after sunset in the west, I decided to try shooting from “Ontario’s West Coast” – the shore of Lake Huron. I arrived at about 7 PM at the gracious home of my friends Margaret and Gordon Cale, who gave me a hand on that very cold evening to try seeing what could be seen out over the lake, and we set up a telescope and camera on the shore. I wasn’t ale to get too far with the telescope, but started shooting with the dSLR about a half hour after sunset. I knew approximately where the comet should have been, but I couldn’t see it with my own eyes. I had to rely on time exposures on the camera to pick it out.

It was a cold but beautiful night, and I was able to get several photos of the comet and the Andromeda Galaxy to its left.

A closer view of M42 and Comet PanSTARRS, at 58mm focal length.

A closer view of M42 and Comet PanSTARRS, at 58mm focal length.

My best view so far.

My best view so far of M42 (left smudge) and the comet (right smudge). Many very faint stars show up as short streaks in this 30 second exposure at 65 mm focal length.

To close off this post, here’s another shot taken on Friday 5 April 2013 at Pine River: the magnificent Constellation Orion (with its brightest or second brightest star, depending on circumstances, Betelgeuse, glowing orange at the left) and the brightly overexposed planet Jupiter over the south-western horizon of Lake Huron. Not a bad start for Astronomy Month 2013, but there’s more to come!

Orion and Jupiter.

Orion and Jupiter photographed over the horizon of Lake Huron at about 9:30 PM, 5 April 2013; 30 second exposure, f/3.5, ISO 800 on a Nikon D7000 and Tamron 24-280 mm.

Copyright © David Allan Galbraith 2013

Someone Finally Saw Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS)!

A biology contact of mine, Dr. David Hillis, and his students saw Comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) tonight (12 March 2013) and actually got a great photo! He has generously allowed me to post one of his photos here at Pine River Observatory.

Their vantage point was David’s Double Helix Ranch in Texas. They saw the comet at a moment that had been promoted in many sources of information on astronomy, when it was visible near the new moon. Here’s the photo:

David Hillis in Texas Photographs Comet PanSTARRS

Thanks David! A wonderful photograph.

Here’s a link to his ranch’s web site, to say thanks for letting me post his photo: http://doublehelixranch.com/.  Drop by and say hello!

Hopefully we’ll get some nice weather soon in Ontario and be able to make up for lost comet-viewing time. Sometime.

PS: Please respect David’s rights regarding his photo. If you want to use this photo in any way, please send him a message and ask. His email address is on his web site. I asked and he said yes.

Update 6 AM 13 March: Here’s a link to a lovely photo of the moon and the comet taken in Burbank, California last night by “5650 Imaging”: http://www.5650imaging.com/Landscapes/Moon/24984509_tKt9kN#!i=2406020175&k=5hT763K&lb=1&s=A

A Report on Expedition One to Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)

Last night (8 March) one of my photography students and I gave it a very good try, but the clouds didn’t let us actually see Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). We met at the parking lot of Canadian Warplane Heritage, beside Hamilton’s international airport,at 6 PM. Despite repeated forecasts for a sunny afternoon – and the Hamilton clear sky chart showing fairly good observing conditions at the time – the cloud deck was 50% complete and 90% to the west: just 2° or less of clear sky in the west.

We decided not to give up, though, and drove like crazy toward the gap in the clouds. We ended up droving west past Brantford and got a little more clear sky, but ultimately, we missed it… there was a little gap in the clouds along the horizon, and we were hopeful. We saw aircraft in there but no comet. Too late, too many clouds. Also, we were depending on a generalized chart of the sky as to where the comet should be. I suspect that by the time we got to our spot and stopped the comet has set.

The horizon west of Brantford, Ontario, at 7 PM on 8 March 2013: too late to see PANSTARRS. Did see lots of planes, though.

The western horizon west of Brantford, Ontario, at 7 PM on 8 March 2013: too late to see Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). Did see lots of planes, though, like the one in this photo.

The forecast for Saturday 9 March is for good weather; some cloud in the afternoon, but hopefully the little part of the sky we need to see the comet has a chance of being clear. The clear sky chart suggests that by 6 PM (18:00) we might have clear skies: http://cleardarksky.com/c/Hamiltonkey.html.

To reduce the uncertainty in where to look, I loaded the orbital elements for the comet into Stellarium, a sky chart program I use, and plotted the expected locations for Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) for three specific times tonight as viewed from Dundas Ontario. Here are the expected bearings for the comet tonight (relative to the horizon and north), and taking into account the bending effects of the atmosphere:

At 6:30 PM: azimuth 255° 26′, altitude 7° 18′

At 6:40 PM: azimuth 257° 13′, altitude 5° 35′

At 6:50 PM: azimuth 258° 58′, altitude 3° 40′

Azimuth is “compass direction.” 255° is 15° south of west. The sun will set at 265° on the 9th, at about 6:18 PM. So, the comet should be a bit further south than the place the sun sets.

Altitude is elevation above the horizon. The width of a thumb held at arm’s length is about 2°; the width of a fist at arm’s length is about 10°. So, the comet should be closer to the horizon than the width of a fist at arm’s length at 6:30. It’ll take only a little in the way of stuff on the horizon to lose it.

The upshot of all of this is that it’s a good idea to get as high as possible before looking for this comet 🙂

Another entry will be filed when the next expedition reports back.

© David Allan Galbraith 2013