Early this year, Anish from RiSa Astro camp sent a WhatsApp message saying that the peak visibility of Comet ZTF was around the corner and there could be an opportunity to observe the comet via his 10″ Dobsonian telescope. While it sounded super exciting, I was hesitant as I had a slightly busy day at work. I was in no mood to pack my bag, drive for 2 hours, and then stay up all night to observe ZTF.
But then, it just occurred to me that a comet is an interstellar object originating from the Oort clouds, which is billions and billions of kilometer away, cuts through the Kuiper Belt, and finally enters our solar system. Observing a comet is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and here I was contemplating if I should cut through the traffic at Bangalore’s dreaded Silk Board junction and drive 80 km to see the comet.
Good sense prevailed, and I eventually decided to go to the camp with my wife and kids and say hello to ZTF. In my head, I thought the comet would look like how they show the comet in the movie Ponniyin selvan – image search ‘comet in Ponniyin Selvan’ to see what I mean. I had mentally dialed in all the camera settings to capture that glorious image.
But as soon as I went to the campsite, Anish burst my bubble. There were a couple of things going on –
- The previous day campers could not spot the comet for various reasons.
- The Northern sky where the comet was supposed to pass by was slightly cloudy, but Anish was confident the clouds would clear.
- It was a waning gibbous moon, so we had to wait for the moon to set for a darker sky.
- The comet’s visibility was around 3:30 AM, so we had a very short window to locate the comet before the twilight hours
As expected, the clouds cleared, and we waited for the moon to set. As soon as the moon set and the skies got darker, I jumped at the opportunity to shoot a star trail, something I’d aspired to do for a long time. While I was on my star trail mission, Anish was busy calibrating his telescope and hunting the comet. Finally, at around 4:15 AM, looking through his 10″ Dobsonian, Anish casually mentioned, ‘There it is.’ ☄️
Firstly, I was secretly disappointed that I had to look through a ‘telescope’ to find the comet🤔. I expected naked eye visibility, just like in Ponniyin Selvan, and secondly, by the time I looked through the telescope, the comet had moved. Anish patiently readjusted the scope to bring the comet to the center of the viewfinder.
Even via the scope, the comet nowhere looked like what I had imagined. It just looked like a fuzzy thing at the center of the viewfinder. But I have to admit; it felt so unreal to see that fuzzy comet.
Observing a deep-space cosmic object billion of miles away felt surreal. But at the same time, reconciling to the fact that many decades later, when the same comet passes by Earth again, the comet would remain the same, but we humans would have degraded the planet further gave me a very unsettling feeling.
Anyway, I pointed my camera towards the comet to take a few pictures.
Getting the direction right with the naked eye was the biggest challenge. Eventually, Anish had to center the comet in the viewfinder, fire his laser pointer in parallel to the viewfinder for me to identify the location of the comet. I took a few long exposure shots until I had a decent frame and photographed the Comet ZTF!
It was such a delight and I cant be more thankful to Anish for this.
ZTF is that fuzzy object with a greenish ting near the top center of the frame. I don’t know if it is just my imagination or indeed the comet’s tail is also faintly visible as it extends in the top left of the frame.
Here is another shot with a slightly wider frame. I rendered it slightly warm just to see how it looks.
Ideally, I should have shot this with a 200mm telephoto lens or something like that, but then I ended up using my 90 mm F2.8 macro and cropped it with Sony’s super 35 feature, essentially converting my 90mm to a 135mm lens 😛
And that is another shot of the comet.
Here is a fun fact, the big white star diagonally opposite to ZTF is ‘Kochab,’ the brightest star in the bowl of the Ursa Minor (Little Bear) constellation, and it is just 130 light years away from us 🙂
So long ZTF!