Star Points for January, 2005; by Curtis Roelle
Bright Binocular Comet Heralds the New Year
As the New Year opens a bright comet beckons you to get out the Christmas telescope and have a look. Didn't get a telescope for the holidays? How about dusting off the telescope of Christmas past sitting in the closet or the garage? Even a pair of binoculars will do just fine for this comet.
Comet Macholz isn't a newly discovered comet. I had my first telescopic look two months ago from my back yard in late October. Designated Comet/2004 Q2 by astronomers, the comet was discovered two months prior to that by California astronomer Don Macholz using a telescope with a six-inch diameter mirror. It was his 10th comet discovery since he began searching in 1975.
The comet remains an easy binocular object throughout January. It will probably be visible to unaided eyes located away from city lights during the first two weeks of the month while the moon is absent from the evening sky.
A finder chart can be found on Sky and Telescope magazine's web site at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/. Visit the site and print a copy of the chart to use during your observing session.
The comet is well placed during prime time. In early January it is highest around 9 p.m. By mid-month it will move higher in the sky and will be best around 8 p.m. An hour or two either way won't make much difference.
Take your finder chart, a flashlight, and a pair of binoculars outside. Remember to dress warmly. Using the binoculars sweep the area of the sky shown on the chart for that day. You will be looking for a small round fuzzy glow with a bright center.
On Christmas evening I used a digital camera to capture the image of Comet Macholz that accompanies this article. I mounted the camera on a telescope "piggyback" style and shot through a 300mm telephoto lens loaned by a kind friend. The telescope was used as a tracking platform to follow the comet as it was slowly drifting among the stars. The telescope's electric drive motors also compensate for the apparent motion of the stars wheeling from east to west caused by the rotation of the earth.
A set of ten separate images exposed for 30-seconds each were later stacked using a home computer to form the final image. The streaks are star trails caused by the motion of the comet relative to the stars in the field of view.
The moon was full during the observation and so no tail is obvious. The scene in this astrophoto should closely match the view one would have using binoculars.
Good luck. Drop me a line if you see the comet or have any questions.
On Christmas evening the author captured this image of Comet Macholz using a Canon Rebel digital camera. Ten 30 second exposures were combined to make the final image. The streaks are star trails and are an artifacat caused by the motion of the comet through space.