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Two Great Comets

It all started way back on March 27 of ’96 when the approaching Comet Hyakutake was heading for a rendezvous with Polaris, the North Star. On that night it came close enough where the head of the comet would not distort even if you took long exposures. I wanted to take advantage of this rare occurrence with a wide-angle lens and shoot the scenery of Sedona, where I live.

I started up two Astronomy clubs in my area, the Sirius Lookers Club and the Verde Valley Astro Club. The Sirius Lookers organized a public star show at the local library on the night of the pairing of Hyakutake and Polaris for an all night viewing of the celestial event. The star show ended around 12:30a.m. with a turn out of about 300 people, which is great for our small community.

I finished packing up my homemade meter scope and headed for home. I didn’t go out until 2:30a.m. that night so that the moon, which set around 2:00a.m., would not interfere with the background sky. It took a full two hours of shooting. I shot landmarks that people would recognize as being in Sedona. The results were remarkable to my surprise. I was fortunate to have a number of great shots with just one roll of film; especially because I was a novice at this. This, of course, excited me, but on the other hand, I knew there was a bit of luck as well.

With the upcoming great expectations of Hale/Bopp, I wanted to see if I could repeat the same results. As an astronomer and having guide lines as to the path of Hale/Bopp plotted for me by Astronomy Magazine, I figured I could do test shots in advance.

With this in mind, I started shooting in June of ’96. Even knowing in advance where the comet lay in the sky, celestial mechanics do not bow to weather conditions or stop in the sky so you can shoot it at your convenience. I used many styles of lighting to light up the scenery at hand. Moonlight, city lights, flashlight, and even a portable 1 million candle power floodlight were used in shooting the may photos I was about to embark on.

After many test shots were done, I chose to buy a high-speed fixed lens for better quality and resolution. Fuji 800asa was my main choice after experimenting with about a half-dozen other films. Time exposure was the most difficult item to get down to a science because of the many variables at hand when shooting. Bracketing is always a rule of thumb when shooting the night sky and this was no exception. My exposures ranged from one minute to four minutes depending upon the conditions that varied with each photo shoot.

One major difference between the two great comets, was the fact that Hale/Bopp would not be near Polaris, which means you need to track the sky for a clean image of the comet. I knew that I would be working in the field, so a conventional telescope would not work for obvious portable reasons. I obtained a vixen equatorial camera field mount from a friend. Weighing in at ten pounds, this was a most useful tool in the field. Even so, total weight with all photo gear in hand came in at 35lbs. Hiking up to 1 miles in the desert at night was still a major physical task to overcome. The thought that I was attempting to capture a moment in history made it worth the extra effort.

When all the cosmic dust cleared, I realized that I had shot over 400 photos, had driven over 3,000 miles, and had many sleepless nights. Yet the rewards were still more than the hardships.

There were many nights that I spooked wild animals, including cows, small rodents, birds, and deer to name a few. I was even held at gunpoint by two police officers. A minute later a police helicopter arrived overhead only to realize a mistaken identity had occurred. Who says that astronomy doesn’t have its exciting moments!

I wanted to have a natural portrait of the view that I saw and this could be only accomplished by long exposures. One drawback is that if you do too long of an exposure of the night sky, then the landscape starts to blur. To give me an extra edge, I intentionally used a wide-angle lens (28mm Minolta F-2), to effectively give a grace period of 25-30 seconds before image shift occurred. I decided to extend my grace period with a new technique I came up with last summer.

This was a very simple idea, but it did work. When I started the camera exposure I did not start the tracking immediately, instead waited 25 to 30 seconds and then started the motor drive. In this way, I effectively extended no image shift for up to one full minute. Thereafter, any longer exposure would show up as image shift on the scenery, but not in the sky since the tracking was in progress. In simple terms, a 1-minute exposure only has 30 seconds of blurring on the landscape, while the star field above is in focus.

Having nights of such profound views like the Milky Way with a very bright comet in its midst on Indian sacred land with no major city within two hundred miles was truly a sight to remember!! This made all the extended hardships insignificant, and if asked if I would do it all over again, the answer would be YES in a lightspeed moment.

-Dennis Young


Dennis Young, Astronomer
P.O. Box 87 | Sedona, AZ 86339
Phone: (928) 282-7501
Email: dennis-young@hotmail.com