My Comet Observing

Comet Hale-Bopp from Fahnestock State Park, Hudson Valley,
New York, April 4, 1997. The photo was taken with a 35mm SLR
and an exposure of about 30 seconds. (c) Tony Hoffman

Among celestial objects, I have long had a particular fascination with comets, due to their changing appearance, their unpredictability, their potential to develop into spectacular objects, the fact that many have been discovered by amateurs, and their tendency to wander far beyond the bounds of the ecliptic to all reaches of the sky. Since 1973, despite living for 25 years in one of the worst places in the world for observing comets, I have observed 27 of them. (It was the appearance of Comet Kohoutek in 1973 that helped solidify my interest in astronomy.)

Observing comets from New York City is a real challenge, as light pollution is particularly brutal in washing out diffuse objects. Although Comet Hale-Bopp was an obvious naked-eye site from the city, the more delicate Comet Hyakutake--which many observers under dark skies deemed the more spectacular of the two objects--was barely visible here without optical aid. I’m lucky to see a magnitude 7 comet from the city in 20x80 binoculars, while from darker skies I can see two magnitudes fainter than that.

Since 2002, thanks to better equipment and more regular access to dark-sky sites, I have redoubled my comet observing. I have been able to become more involved in making es-timates of the physical characteristics for comets (magnitude, coma diameter, degree of condensation, tail length). I use a range of binoculars, including 22x100, 20x80, 9x63, and 7x50, as well as a 127mm Orion StarMax Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope. It is usually a thrill, and often a challenge, when I go out to try to observe a comet I haven't seen before, and fun when I'm able to track comets over weeks or months, noting their changing appearance and brightness and coming to think of them as old friends before they depart on journeys that in most cases won't bring them back to our vicinity for many human lifetimes.

This page will include links to my articles about comets, as well as brief impressions of many of the comets I have seen, wherever possible augmented by my original observing reports or journal entries (as well as historical facts).

Comet Kohoutek (1973f)

This notorious comet was discovered by Lubos Kohoutek, a professional Czechoslovakian astronomer working in Hamburg, on March 7, 1973. It was found seven months before its perihelion, a record at that time. Its distance from the Sun at discovery, and the fact that it was expected to pass within the orbit of Mercury (0.14 AU from the Sun) at perihelion, led astronomers to predict it would be unusually bright, and the media ran with the story. The approach of Kohoutek was one of the things that strongly sparked my interest in astronomy. I remember the hype, the claims it would be the “Comet of the Century.” As is, it became quite bright—the Skylab astronauts photographed it, using a coronagraph, at magnitude –3 on its perihelion day, December 28, 1973—but rapidly faded as it emerged into the evening sky, and in the public's eye it was a total flop. I tried to see it on January 4, 1974, a night with some thin clouds, with no success. On January 7, though, I sighted Kohoutek with 7x50 binoculars—my first comet. It was rather faint (maybe magnitude 3.5 or 4, in twilight and low in the sky, not far from Venus and Jupiter), like a fuzzy star with a bright center, and a blueish tail of maybe half a degree. I saw it again the following night (that day I subscribed to what was then a brand-new magazine, Astronomy ) for the last time; a drawing I did that night indicates a tail length of about 3.5 degrees. Despite the fact that it did not live up to its predicted splendor, I remember Kohoutek fondly, as it was my first comet.

Comet Bradfield (1974b)

A couple of months after Kohoutek passed through, another comet appeared, one of the first discoveries by Australia’s Bill Bradfield, who would go on to become the 20th Century’s most prolific visual comet hunter, with 17 discoveries credited to him (and now one in the 21st Century as well). I first saw this Comet Bradfield on March 25, the day I’d read about its discovery, as an object that I estimated at magnitude 4.9 (using the Sidgwick method) with a short tail in the constellation Cetus. It became circumpolar, I believe, and I observed it on a number of occasions over the next month. On April 7, I estimated its brightness at 5.3, with a tail length of about 45 arc-minutes.

Comet Kobayashi-Berger-Milon (1975)

I saw this comet on about five nights, including several times with the naked eye (it peaked at around magnitude 4.5), in July and August 1975 as it passed relatively near the Earth, showing a condensed nucleus and large coma.

Comet West (C/1975 V1): My First Great Comet

Comet D'Arrest

On July 25, 1976, I spotted periodic comet D’Arrest using the 12-1/2" reflecting telescope at Rolnick Observatory in Westport, Connecticut. The comet was about 10th magnitude (a very rough estimate) and 2 or 3 arc-minutes in diameter.(A few weeks later, on August 13, it passed just .15 a.u. from Earth and shone at magnitude 5, its closest and brightest pass on record—though I only recorded that one sighting in late July.)

Hail, Hale-Bopp, and Farewell

Comet Hyakutake (C/1996 B2): The Great "Earthgrazing" Comet of 1996

Comet LINEAR (C/2001 A2): The Little Comet that Could

Comet Hönig (C/2002 O4)

Found by fellow SOHO comet hunter Sebastian Hönig quite serendipitously--the first visual comet discovery by a German amateur in 56 years, since Anton Weber co-discovered C/1946 K1(Pajdusakova-Rotbart-Weber)--Comet Hönig was well placed in the evening sky for Northern Hemisphere observers in the late summer of 2002. Amazingly, it was one of four comets discovered visually by amateurs within six months, while only one such discovery had been made in each of the previous two years. I first saw Comet Hönig from upstate New York on August 4; it took me a long and frustrating hour to locate it. I was breaking in my new 127-mm Orion Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, and I had just gotten a new finder scope for it. The position I had marked for the comet on my atlas was off by about a degree, and I was sweeping for the comet, at first being hampered by stray light from a nearby house. I found the comet soon after they turned the lights off. It was a rather pale and diffuse glow, obvious when I found it but not easy. It was high in the sky, in Cepheus or maybe Cassiopeia. It was a thrill to view a comet actually found by someone with whom I'm acquainted.

I saw the comet for the second and last time on August 25, this time in both telescope and binoculars. It had migrated to Ursa Minor, and was located not far from Kochab. I got up the next morning to try to observe Comet SWAN (2002 O6), which had been found by M. Suzuki on SOHO's SWAN images. I went to a nearby field with a relatively clear eastern horizon, but though I scanned the area of Ursa Major where the comet was located--near the stars Tania Australis and Borealis-- in my 9x63 binoculars until morning twilight interfered, I did not see it. I was disappointed; it would have been nice to have had a SOHO comet as the 20th comet I've observed, but I had no such luck. It turned out that SWAN was starting a rapid fading, and within two weeks would be all but invisible in large telescopes. Likewise, Comet Hönig, which had been about 8th magnitude that night, soon faded rapidly, and probably disintegrated by the time it reached perihelion.

Comet Ikeya-Zhang (C/2002 C4)

Comet Pojmanski (C/2006 A1)

I first saw Comet Pojmanski on the morning of March 5, 2006, when the comet was at around magnitude 5.3. I viewed out the kitchen window of my apartment in Queens, New York. It's not normally a good place to observe comets, as it faces a row of apartment buildings two stories higher than it, less than 100 feet away, and several neighbors usually have their lights on. But I realized that way to the left there was a narrow gap of unobstructed sky (15 degrees or so) that extended down to within maybe 5 degrees of the horizon. I realized that the comet would rise through that gap -- and sure enough, it did, between Altair and Delphinus. I viewed it in 7x50 and 20x80 binoculars, and described it as "a fairly condensed blueish comet with a hint of a tail." I also took some photos with a Canon SD550 digital camera; the comet showed up in the pictures, faint but clear. Three mornings later, I saw Pojmanski again from the same location, and a few days after that I observed and photographed it from the relatively dark skies of Ivoryton, Connecticut.

Comet 177P/Barnard 2 (2006)

This comet was disccovered by the great American astronomer and comet hunter Edward Emerson Barnard in 1889. It was rediscovered by the LINEAR projectin June, 2006, its first return since its discovery, with an orbital period of about 117 years. I observed 177P/Barnard on September 16, 2006, one of my most difficult comet observations. From my observing log: "I could barely make it out in my 20x100 binocs and Orion StarMax [127mm MCT]." The following night, when conditions were somewhat worse (the Milky Way barely visible, compared to the previous night, when it had been "vivid"), I did not see it at all.

Comet McNaught: The Twilight Wonder

Total number of comets observed = 33 (as of January 2007)

Descriptions of many more comets (Halley, Encke, Levy, Tabur, Swift-Tuttle, IRAS-Araki-Alcock, Kudo-Fujikawa, Juels-Holvorcem, Machholz, Pojmanski, several comets named LINEAR and NEAT, and assorted other fuzzballs) will follow in time.

E-mail to tonyhoffman [at] earthlink [dot] net