Michigan astronomy ain’t easy; you got to work for it. You have to be willing to give up a little sleep now and then just to find a few hours of clear skies. Michigan astronomy in the winter?? Forget about it! The few clear nights or early mornings are usually frigid and windy and if you do get a “nice” night where the winds are less than double digit knots and the temperature is greater than single digits, you will probably be dealing with a full moon!
So, when I saw that the early morning hours of Sunday, February 26, 2006 promised to be clear and Comet C/2006 A1 Pojmanski would be at its brightest and rising in the east about 1.5 hours before sunrise, there was only one thing to do... set the scope up at Leslie Park, in northeast Ann Arbor, at about 04:30.
In case you weren’t aware of it, I have this thing about comets. I guess it’s like an obsession, if there is a comet that is visible in the sky, I must see it! I find that my passion for observing comets is like an unquenchable thirst, as soon as I hear that a new comet has been discovered, I start to follow its progress thru the inner solar system. And if it gets bright enough to be seen in moderate size telescopes, (just about 13th magnitude or brighter) I start to plan my next observing session. With one aim, to catalog an observation of that comet! To date; I have cataloged 32 different comets that started with Hyakutake in 1996. I am fascinated by them, and the fact that we can see them at all is simply incredible. Here is an object that might be a couple of dozen miles in diameter, comprised of a tenuously held together collection of “left-overs” from the beginnings of the solar system, locked in deep freeze, and not getting much closer to the earth than a couple million miles, and yet can sometimes be bright enough to be seen in broad daylight without the use of a telescope, if you don’t find that amazing then there is something seriously wrong with you and I hope for you a speedy recovery!
Lets get back to the wee hours of Sunday, February 26, 2006 and Comet C/2006 A1 Pojmanski, which was discovered in the southern hemisphere and has been brightening rather quickly as it moved toward perihelion (closet approach to the sun) on February 22, 2006. As it rounds the Sun it moves into the northern hemisphere, we should get a good look at the first comet discovered this year, which may be bright enough to see with unaided eyes. According to the latest magnitude estimates the comet should be at its brightest (5.2 magnitude) between February 22nd and March 2nd which coincidently coincides with the dark of the moon, how utterly fortuitous!
I should be able to pick up my 33rd comet fairly easily, except for the fact that I live in southeastern Michigan and as I explained earlier, astronomy during the Michigan winters is even more tenuous than a comet’s composition! But the weather reports for Sunday morning were very promising; the Clear Sky Clock was predicting clear skies for Ann Arbor from 01:00 thru 09:00! AccuWeather was also calling for clear skies, albeit rather cold and breezy. Okay, real cold and kinda blustery. Alright, alright “frickin’ frigid” and windy, are you satisfied! But if you’re an astronomer in Michigan your tolerance for lower temperatures is greater, right? Well, we’ll answer that question a little later.
Now, when I go hunting for comets, I do a fair amount of “prep” work after all, “proper planning prevents poor performance!” Saturday, February 25th, I printed off my finder charts using the latest comet elements, and I checked my figures twice. I decided to use my 5” f/5 refractor on it’s equatorial mount with “goto” capabilities, mainly because I was worried about the low altitude of the comet and the windy conditions, both factors are not good for the 12.5” dob. So I checked my batteries and made some minor adjustments to the Equatorial mount. And I checked the weather throughout the day on Saturday and the forecast was improving all day long. This is great, and I went to bed early in anticipation of clear skies at 03:30 when I planned on waking.
At 03:30 when my alarm went off, I looked out my window and clear skies is what I saw, with stars bright and crisp, this was going to be a good day! So, I put on my “thermal longies” and grabbed the rest of my cold weather wear and went downstairs. When I got downstairs I check the skies again... still clear. I could see Jupiter shining brightly in the south and I was happy. I figured I had plenty of time to get over to my observing site, so I made a pot of coffee and ate some yogurt and a granola bar. While I was waiting for the coffee to finish, I checked the weather on the computer; the forecast was holding clear skies just for me and my quarry! As I left the house I looked up and saw wonderfully clear skies filled with bright stars, and one little wisp of a cloud moving swiftly to the south-southeast, hardly enough to worry about. When I arrived at Leslie Park, (a scant 2 miles from my house) I noticed a few more of those wispy low floating nebulae, quickly moving south-southeast and disappearing. It was 04:30 and time to start setting up, I would be hunting down Comet C/2006 A1 Pojmanski in less than an hour and a half, so I needed to get busy. I got the scope set up and polar aligned by 04:45 and the sky was still pretty clear, except for a couple of medium-sized puffy clouds off to the northwest. The batteries needed to be warmed up as the temperature was about 10 degrees and with the wind it was probably -10 degrees. And I was a little chilled too, so into the SUV with the batteries and me to warm up a little bit. It was 05:15 time to set up the alignment on the “goto” and do a little observing, so as I am hooking up the batteries and powering up the “goto”, I noticed a rather large cloud moving in from the north-northeast.
And I just managed to complete my two star alignment, as the cloud covered the sky. But all was not lost, this cloud was moving fast and I could see a clearing to the north, I just needed to be patient. By 05:30 that clear sky the weather reports promised was not looking as great as it was a half hour ago. Fifteen minutes later and the sky once again was clear, this was more like it. I took a quick look at Jupiter thru the scope and made sure no one had come along and painted it purple or anything, no worries it was still there and its usual color. Then I pushed a couple of buttons and the scope slewed its way over to Venus; just about 10 degrees above the horizon. One of the reasons I like observing at Leslie Park is the low horizon, even though it not as dark as Peach Mt., it does have great horizons. My comet was 8.25 degrees due east of Venus and just about to clear the trees... when from out of the north east came a sky covering cloud and Venus disappeared! Okay, don’t panic, it could clear in a few minutes... maybe... I still have time, it’s not going to start getting light for at least another... fifteen minutes. I’ll just be patient... just a few minutes more... and... maybe a few more. Come on! Cloud get moving... this just ain’t fair! But I need to remember that Michigan astronomy can be disappointing at times and I need to keep my perspective. I looked all around me and I couldn’t find anything that resembled a clear patch of sky, and now I could see the first orange light of the sun reflecting off the bottom of the cloud that was blocking my view of Comet C/2006 A1 Pojmanski! I waited patiently for 15 more minutes hoping for some quick clearing, but Michigan astronomy in the winter is sometimes very disappointing, and I needed to be a good sport about it. After, all I did get a quick look at Jupiter and Venus... the heck with this good sport crap! I’m pissed and I’m cold and I want my Comet, I want it , I want it, I WANT IT!!!!
Okay, I’m better now, and as I put the last of my telescope and other observing equipment into the SUV and the sun poked up over the eastern trees the sky became crystal clear, a beautiful winter’s dawn lit up the sky and the stars and comet will have to wait for another time to be observed by me.
Oh yeah, do you remember me insinuating that Michigan astronomers have a greater tolerance for frigid temperatures... I think that’s only true if you manage to see what you froze your butt off for, because it definitely didn’t hold true for me and my frozen butt, I was COLD!!!!
This photograph of Comet C/2006 A1 Pojmanski was taken by Adam Block (Caelum Observatory) and R. Jay GaBany (Cosmotography.com). It appeared in the March 11, 2006 Astronomy Picture of the Day.