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Comet Hunting, Cluster Cruising & a first encounter


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Watching the forecast as Friday afternoon drew on, I was getting almost childishly excited to head up to my usual darker spot on the South Downs with the specific purpose of tracking down the comet du jour, C 2022/E3 (ZTF).   Having got really, really cold up there on Tuesday night (well worth it) I opted to take minimal gear and combine the comet hunt with a first dark(er) sky outing for my new toy, a Stellalyra 2 inch, 30mm Ultra Flat Field which has rejuvenated my enjoyment of my 2 inch modded ST80, to see what it would yield with less local light pollution around.   

I hung on until about half-ten to head out by which time the sky had cleared of mid-evening cloud and whilst transparency didn't look as perfect as earlier in the week, certainly looked worth a shot.   So, equipped with the ST80, the SL 30mm in one pocket and a Baader Mk 1V zoom in the other, I stuck the AZGTi / Berlebach Report combo in the boot and once again wrapped in full winter gear set up shop on my usual dirt track across the Downs. 

From a naked-eye sweep before setting up, transparency was quite good, the winter milky way visible though not quite the glittering pathway I'd seen on Tuesday. I could easily pick out the main stars in Ursa Minor and the Beehive and Double Cluster were visible in averted vision. Orion once again looked spectacular. A band of thick-ish cloud was sitting over the target area for the comet as I aligned and took about half an hour to move away - fortunately the only interruption of the evening.  

Having carefully levelled and aligned using the Baader Zoom at 50x I plugged in the new Stellalyra 30mm UFF and started on the Pleiades, framed in a rich, wide starfield (5.25 degrees in this set up at 13.3x mag), Beehive, superb in its entirety and Double Cluster which I spent a good deal of time enjoying.  I am really chuffed with the SL 30mm UFF in the ST80, although stars in the outer 10% of the massive field are very slightly defocused vs. on axis they are not deformed, and the effect is not at all "dizzying" as is the dramatic aberration present across a much wider swath of the field when using the Baader 31mm Hyperion Aspheric.  Contrast and colour are good too and the huge field makes taking in the whole of wider features like this in their context a real pleasure. 

To the comet then, via a couple of local GoTo hops to dial-in the mount's accuracy - Mizar, where I popped in the Zoom to enjoy a lovely split, one of the first doubles I looked at and remains a low power favourite.  Then on to Edasich (Iota Draconis) as a jumping off point for the comet.  The latest version of SynScan Pro includes current comets as pre-set targets and C 2022/E3 (ZTF) was top of the list. 

I'd expected the comet to be a tough spot but of course, sixth magnitude is actually quite bright, certainly compared to some of the galaxy targets I'd been peering after earlier in the week. I picked it out quite easily, reminded me initially of an unresolved globular cluster that had been slightly smeared across the sky.  A small diffuse ball in the SL 30mm, brighter at its core and standing direct vision. In AV I could dimly pick out a short and fairly broad wedge shaped tail and from time to time a flicker of a longer streak, particularly on its upper/left hand edge (RACI view).  After enjoying the view for ten minutes or so, I switched to the zoom and found the best view at around 12mm (33x) which still included a pair of faint background stars to aid focus, any more than that wasn't revealing anything more.  

Having had a good look, I checked if i could find it with my 10x50s and yes, with a clue from the RDF on the 'scope, its was easily picked out.   

Confident I'd be able to reacquire the comet later, I decided to take a tour of the winter milky way with the new eyepiece and then see if I could discern any movement in the comet against its background stars.  

I panned through NGC 457 (the Owl/ET), Double Cluster again, lingered on the stunning view of Mirphak and the alpha Persei cluster that was just superb in this field, a tiny Mars disc against a rich background, Aldebaran and the Hyades, Meissa and the head of Orion, the belt stars and the winding silver of Collinder 70, and then the inevitable minutes lost in space on the M42 region. Even at low magnification, the drive out to a darker spot is most noticeable in the increase in contrast and detail on this object, just superb.  After that, M46 & 47 looked a bit small and lack-lustre, but its not so much their fault as I was getting down toward the encroaching light-dome over Portsmouth/Fareham area by then.   

All this sweeping had taken up a pleasant hour and by now very cold (and glad of the decsion to go for two eyepieces that could be switched in and out fully gloved & the versatility of the Zoom), I decided to take a last look at the comet before calling it a night.  

The cold was in part due to a light but steady and bitingly chilly breeze that had sprung up, numbing ungloved fingers in a couple of minutes. It had though had the effect of clearing the skies further and transparency was definitely better than earlier in the evening.  I had a lovely long look at the comet, apparently brighter now (around 1.30 am) and with those hints of a longer tail coming through more reliably.  Sure enough it had moved I'd say about half a degree or so against the background in the time I'd been out, which I was surprised at how exciting I found to see. 

Leo was by now high to the East with Virgo rising and the band of the winter milky way slipping lower and West, my fingers even in gloves were starting to feel distinctly wooden. As I was making my mind up to pack up, a car swept in and parked next to mine a couple of hundred yards away, certainly I wasn't going to hang around long enough to fully regain my night-vision so I took it as a sign to pack up, unsure too of the intentions of this new arrival at such an out of town spot. Back at the layby, I found the driver wrestling an immense pair of binoculars onto a tripod and struggling to find the comet.  Its the first time I've run into a kindred astro-spirit up here so I was happy to do a quick set up, realign and let him have a look through the ST80 to get his bearings by hovering over my RDF with his massive bins!

By this time though I was really ready to get into my nice warm car and drive, carefully, home. (I always find myself driving incredibly slowly after an absorbing session having got used to the imperceptibly slow motion of the sky!).   Back home then for tea and whisky and a warm whilst checking out what all the other SGL'ers had been up to, an additional pleasure on a good night like this. 

(I was shortly brought swiftly back down to earth by the arrival of my kebab-toting older teenagers who had somewhat over-served themselves on a night out, but that's another story...) 























Edited by SuburbanMak
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