Let ISON Be Your Introduction to Astronomy!

Halley's Comet - NASA ImageComet Halley - NASA

Over 25 years ago, I read a newspaper article about the upcoming apparition of Halley's Comet, and I got real excited.  I knew nothing about astronomy, and the stars at night, while beautiful, were completely unknown to me.  What I did know a thing or two about was Mark Twain, and I remembered the connection between the comet and the man.  In Mark Twain's autobiography, he said:

"I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: "Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together."  

Sure enough, Mark Twain died on April 21st, 1910, the day after the comet's closest approach to the Sun.  The whole thing seemed so mysterious, and oddly romantic, that it captured my attention, and so when I found out that comet Halley was heading back towards our neck of the woods, I was bound and determined to see it.

In 1986, I went to a two-part lecture about comet Halley in my area.  I learned some basic scientific facts about comets on the first night, and on the second night, the entire class met out in the desert in hopes of seeing Halley with our own eyes.  I did not have any equipment at all, and neither did most of the other students.  We brought our curiosity and our enthusiasm, and depended upon the instructors to do the rest; and they did. 

Comet Halley was not as bright as everyone hoped it would be, especially for people like me who needed something huge and unmistakable in the night sky to know I was seeing something unusual.  I remember the patience of the instructor, trying to point out something that was so obvious to him, yet so invisible to me.  Having someone around who was familiar with the denizens of the cosmos was very helpful, and because of that night, I became an amateur astronomer.  I attended star parties whenever I could, and slowly absorbed information like starlight.  Before long, I had my own telescope, and became familiar enough with the sky and my equipment to share the stars with others who had the same curiosity and enthusiasm I started with years before.  

In a month or two, people everywhere will get a chance to see an amazing visitor to our solar system…comet ISON.  Just like comet Halley, there has been a lot of hype, and we won't really know how things will turn out until later this autumn.  However, if you are intrigued by ISON, and want to make sure you experience it in the best way possible, there are some things you can do now to hedge your bets.

1.  Get educated.  There are so many ways that you can learn about science…heck, anything, these days.  To learn about comets and the latest information on comet ISON, you can visit a high-quality site like NASA or their sponsored Comet ISON Observing Campaign website at isoncampaign.org.   Learning about the comet before it arrives will help you understand what to look for when the time comes, and you will be able to explain details to family, friends, and neighbors.

2.  Look at the latest pictures.  One of the reasons I had a hard time "seeing" comet Halley is because I didn't know what it was supposed to look like.  Remember, "way back" in 1986, we did not have the ability to see images from all over the world minutes after they were taken!  In 2013, we have no such excuse.  Keep an eye on the images that amateur and professional astronomers are posting over the next few months, and even if ISON isn't as bright as hoped for, you will still recognize it when you see it.

3.  Find an ISON event near you.  Astronomy clubs, planetariums, and observatories all over the world will be hosting ISON observing nights.  Find one of these organizations closest to your home and give them a call or follow them on Facebook to find out what their plans are.  If you know someone who has a telescope and is interested in astronomy, ask them if you can come over and observe with them sometime.  The plan here is to have a dark-sky experience BEFORE the big night, so that you can get used to what the sky looks like without all the porch lights, head lights, and bright parking lots dimming the view.  When I went out to see Halley's Comet, the stars were so plentiful and it was so different from my light-polluted view at home, that I was overwhelmed by the sight. Asking me to find one point of light in the darkness was like asking me to pick out one car in a stadium parking lot. 

"Do you mean THAT car?"

"No, not THAT car…the one that is two rows up and three cars down."

"You mean the red one?"

"No, the yellow one!"

It was hard then, but if I could go back in time to that night, knowing what I know now, it would be a piece of cake!  

4.  Equipment.  This is a tough one, because sometimes, the best equipment for a comet is your own two eyes.  The same is true for a meteor shower.  If comet ISON is as big as people think it might be, then the tail will stretch several degrees across the sky.  If it is bright as well, then you need do nothing more than stand and stare in awe.

However, and this is a pretty big however, if comet ISON is not as bright or big as hoped for, having some equipment will help you see it.  Period. 

If I had used a pair of binoculars to look at Halley's Comet that first night, I would have had a better experience.  I believe fervently that you cannot go wrong with a decent pair of 7 x 50 binoculars.  Don't think that if 7 X 50's are good, 10 X 50's are better.  Maybe for some applications, but not for astronomy or comet-watching.  You want a big, bright beam of light hitting your eyes (7mm for 7 X 50's vs 5mm for 10 X 50's), and you want a nice wide field of view.  If you already have a pair of 7 x 50's and you like them, then you are good to go.  If you don't, then shop for a pair that brags about their wide field of view, and spend as much as you are comfortable spending so you will get the best optical quality possible.  A good pair of 7 X 50 binoculars will be your companion on many adventures.  Use them for astronomy, use them for observing wildlife, use them for concerts (especially in the cheap seats of those dark outdoor amphitheaters). 

5.  Should I get a telescope?  Maybe.  That is what I would tell my best friend, so that is what I am telling you.  Have you always wanted a telescope and need an excuse to get one?  Congratulations, Comet ISON is your excuse!  In that case, get the telescope of your dreams.  A telescope is a time machine, my friends, and will take you on a journey that will blow your mind.  I highly recommend it. However, if you don't really see yourself using a telescope except for the comet, I would save my money.  It is not that a telescope might enhance your viewing pleasure of comet ISON, it is just that I would rather you not buy a cheap telescope, use it once or twice, and throw it in the garage.  Instead, follow the hints in section #1 and enjoy the views of ISON through someone else's telescope.  If you like the experience enough, then maybe a telescope will be in your future.  

6.  I want to take pictures!  Welcome to the club!  There will be millions of pictures of comet ISON available by the end of the year.  In fact, I am sure it will be the most photographed comet in history, by a long shot.  It is relatively easy to photograph a comet…especially a bright comet.  You will need a tripod.  You will need a camera.  Attach the camera to the tripod, even if you think you are steady as a rock and have been known to take sharp pictures of a black kitten on a dark background at night.   If ISON is bright, you might be able to use a point and shoot camera or a smart phone (special brackets are available to hold a iPhone or smartphone steady on a tripod).  If your camera has the ability to bracket shots (+/- exposure) then do that.  You will find that different exposures reveal the comet's features in various ways. Don't forget to TURN OFF YOUR FLASH.  

The best way to photograph the comet without a telescope is with an SLR or DSLR 35 mm camera on a tripod. Short exposures can be taken with a wide angle lens.  Bracket your shots, and check the results.  You will soon see what the best exposure time is for that evening.  For longer exposures, I highly recommend a tracking mount like the AstroTrac.  It attaches to a tripod, and your camera attaches to the AstroTrac.  After doing some basic alignments, the mount will track the stars, allowing your camera to take longer exposures without star trails.  The options are limitless with this method.  Find out when ISON will be in the same photographic field as a planet or a galaxy or a star cluster, and take the shot.  You will get professional results and your den will end up covered in your own photographs of Comet ISON!

If you have a telescope and want to photograph ISON through it, there are lots of ways to do that.  You can do prime focus photography with the addition of just a few accessories, you can buy an inexpensive one-shot color CCD camera, or you can go all out with a monochrome CCD camera and filter wheel.  

There, that should get you started!  A comet is the perfect introduction to astronomy.  ISON may not be as historically important (at least not yet!) as Comet Halley, and as far as I know, there are no famous authors who plan to make ISON a major player in his or her own personal history, but this is its first trip into our Solar System, so who knows?  Enjoy the experience, share it with someone you love, and make it part of your own life's story.

--Penny Distasio

For more information about buying the right telescope for comet ISON, or about imaging ISON through your telescope or camera, contact the folks at OPT at 1-800-483-6287.