Happy to say that I’m ending 2021 on at least one high note!
Comet Leonard was discovered last January, diving toward the Sun. Its closest approach to the Sun is coming up on January 3rd, following its closest approach to Earth, which happened on December 12th. Don’t worry, it never got closer than 34.6M kilometers (21.5M miles).
Comets are notoriously lousy at allowing predictions of how bright they’ll get, and a first there wasn’t a lot of hope for Comet Leonard. However, it started unexpectedly brightening in November, and by early December it was visible in binoculars and small telescopes. It’s just in the last couple of weeks moved to where it can be seen in the evening sky in North America.
I’ve been trying to spot it for about ten days, weather permitting. A couple of times with a really good pair of binoculars I’ve thought that I might have seen it, sorta, maybe, kinda, -ish? But it’s very low in the twilight sky in the west, even when we haven’t had outright clouds, we’ve had haze and “gunk” in the sky, and I live in one of the biggest and brightest and light polluting-ist metropolitan areas on the planet.
But I haven’t given up. And neither should you.
If you want to try to find it, there are a couple of ways to know where to look. First of all, there’s a great site at The Sky Live. Change the location in at the top (unless you too are in Woodland Hills, CA) and scroll down to the map. Tonight, just before 18:00 local, mine looked like this:
Note that there are three bright planets in this view and they can be your guideposts to look. Jupiter is at the top center (really bright), Venus at the bottom right having juuuuuust set in this view (really stinkin’ bright), and Saturn between them (bright). So in rough terms, right now Comet Leonard is a little to the left of a line dropped straight down to the horizon from Jupiter, and a little bit higher than Venus, maybe a third of the way up higher than Saturn is compared to Venus.
Tonight I started looking in that area with binoculars since it was crystal clear after yesterday’s rain and before tomorrow’s rain. Still low in the sky, still a ton of light pollution, and the best view in that direction that I had from my yard was a spot where I was standing directly under that stupid freakin’ streetlight. And yet, after a few minutes, there it was!!
I looked for a bit, looked away and looked back to find it again and verify that I was actually seeing it. It did NOT look like the pictures folks are taking from the Southern Hemisphere with big telescopes. But where all of the stars I could see were pinpoints, this was a tiny, fuzzy fuzzball with a slight greenish tint and the tiniest bit of tail, pointing off to about the 10:00 position. (Ignore the orientation of the tail on the Sky Live map, it’s just an icon. The real tail will point straight away from the Sun, so to the upper left.)
Before it set and before the next storm could move in tonight – could I catch an image of it? While I can’t see it through the telephoto lens, using the binoculars I can see that it’s just above the tree that’s behind the neighbor’s house’s chimney which is right above their Christmas lights. Can I shoot several sets of pictures at various magnifications and exposures and eyeballing the pointing, while using bright, bright Jupiter as an object to manually focus the lens that’s notoriously difficult to focus? We wouldn’t know until I tried, right?
Using this “carpet bombing” approach and using lots of cheap memory instead of film, there are a few captures. The comet isn’t centered since I was shooting blind. but over on that right hand side, slightly below center, you’ll see a greenish fuzzy spot, which is Comet Leonard. (The bright yellow line at the top is a power line, illuminated by that freakin’ streetlight just over my head.)
This is a 2 second exposure at 135mm on the zoom lens. What about a 4 second exposure?
Where are we looking? Compare the stars you can see to the area highlighted in this zoomed in version of the Sky Live map:
What if I zoom in? Still getting lucky?
4 seconds at 300mm zoom. Comet Leonard over on the far right center.
2.5 seconds at 300mm zoom. Comet Leonard in the upper right corner. How close are we getting to the horizon? Even zoomed in this far, at the bottom you can see the top of that tree behind the neighbor’s chimney… In five minutes, it will be gone and the air near the horizon is getting thick and soupy, fast.
This might well have been the last real chance I’ll have to see Comet Leonard given our weather forecast, but I’ll be keeping my eyes open, just in case. Over the next week or two Comet Leonard will be moving a bit each night to the left and up a bit, but it will also be getting more dim as it pulls away from the Earth.
Good comet hunting as we come up on the New Year!