Comet Machholz Rendezvous with the Pleiades and the California Nebula - Jan 7-13, 2005

This was a highlight event for winter '04/'05. Unfortunately, we have had abominable astronomy weather since Christmas. Shahram and I tentatively planned to get together for a photo session on Friday, the day of conjunction, when the comet was only 2 degrees from the Plieades. Nope - totally rainy.

Saturday Jan 7: wasn't much better, after on/off/on again phone calls in the evening as a few dark holes opened in the clouds, Shahram decided to shift hopes to Sunday. But at 11pm, I was still game, and the sky looked promising. I already had my photogear in my car (for a week, actually), so it was an easy decision. The wet, saturated air produced clouds with even the littlest bit of orographic lifting. So going to Bonny Doon seemed doomed. In fact, Shahram said that it was raining as he came back from Fremont over the summit. Instead there was a nice spot I remember from many years ago. An overlook above a pond 7 miles north of Santa Cruz along Hwy 1. It's site #7 on my list of local observing spots. I arrived at 11:15pm to fairly clear skies. The comet was beautiful! A giant green ball with a very stubby dust tail to the southeast, and a very long, faint and narrow ion tail extending above the Pleiades in my 7x50 bino's. I set up behind the pumphouse, listening to my new audio book by Stephen King on the art of fiction writing. I got the GM8 and my OM-1 camera with 100mm lens mounted quickly and polar aligned. I took 4 x 10minute exposures at f/4; one stop down from wide open. My hope is to get a very sharp image that'll stand lots of magnification.

Here's the shot we SHOULD have gotten on Friday. And even better...look at this awesome picture from Europe where the comet's tail went right through the Plieades early Saturday our time.





More good shots are here.

My 4 film shots will have to wait. For now, I have this stack of 3 x 1 minute images from the STV videocamera. The original frames were binned 3x3. Incoming fog affected all frames, and the comet was low by this time. I shot when the fog was thinnest. I'm still learning to operate the STV; the dynamic range in this shot is not comparable to what could be seen with the eye. There's a lot of settings which perhaps were not optimal (like the 3x3 binning; not what I had planned), no dark frame, no flat fielding, and poor focus (don't let the hot pixels fool you!). Still, you can see a hint of the ion tail at about 11 o'clock, and the fat dust tail is more obvious at about 7 o'clock from the head, which is just below and right of center.

Jan 11 - I arrived at 8:30pm and photographed alone. The comet was still close enough to the Plieades to get in the frame. I shot film only, 100mm lens and through the Orion ShortTube. Check back later after they're developed and scanned. While photographing, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Stephen King read his book on audio tape on the art of writing... so much so that after 3 hours, my car battery was dead. And with all the photography, my other two batteries brought along were also dead! Gah! Looks like I was going to spend the night in the front seat of my car... but then Shahram finally showed up. At 1:30am. (He said he'd be there by 10pm). Anyway, MUCH better late than never, as he was able to give me a jump and get me home.

Jan 12 - A third night at Back Ranch pumphouse. This time, Chris Angelos showed up, and then Jeff Jolin, then Karl, and Shahram, and finally Andy. One of the locals also stopped and we showed them the comet. At left, that's me, Jeff, Chris, Shahram, and Karl left to right. This was the first time the club had gotten together in months, and with so much socializing, I forgot to plug in the RA cord on the GM8 and we did an hour of film shots all for naught. Then, a bank of cirrus rolled in and it looked hopeless; everyone except me and Shahram packed up and left. But then the clouds thinned and disappeared, and we resumed photography. My main goal was getting 100mm film shots of the comet and the California Nebula. The tail of the comet grazed the nebula on the south side tonight, and the north side on the evening of the 13th; 5 degrees from the head of the comet. Chris and Andy and Jeff all forgot some key items for getting their home-grown gear going, and ended up piggy-backing on the GM8 platform. But alas, they'll find their pictures are going to be trailed, big time! After things quieted down and it was just Shahram and me, I discovered the problem and was able to get off another 4,5 pix of through the Orion ShortTube, and another 4,5 with the 100mm lens and the Nebula. At right is my set up, with the bank of clouds which scared off the rest of the crew now far to the northeast of us.

Shahram set up his 10" Schmidt-Newt for some track/accumulate webcam pictures, but things went poorly. I got a shot of him while waiting for the computer system to come up. That's the familar form of Lepus above Shahram's head, and Rigil at top just right of center. The comet was about magnitude 3.8 visually, and had a long, faint ion tail extending to just below the California Nebula, and a short fat dust tail extending in an almost perpendicular southeastward direction.


At left is another version, now with Shahram scurrying around with his red flashlight. About this time; 1:30am, clouds returned and the comet was getting too low, so we packed up. I'm optimistic that I got some good pictures of the comet and California Nebula, and some nice shots of the comet close-up with the 400mm Orion scope as well.