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Astronomy: Hunting Comet Garradd

8-26-11 Comet Garradd by Chumack

Comet Garradd with a satellite passing through. Credit: John Chumack

On a quiet, clear evening this week I took my telescope out to stargaze. It was nearly an ideal night except for the stiff breeze. While the breeze may be great to keep the bugs away (which are slowly becoming fewer anyway), it’s a bit of a problem for my eyes. As a contact-lens wearer, the wind dries out my eyes and I have to constantly blink to keep the stars from appearing smeared through the scope.

My goal this night was to spot Comet Garradd (C/2009 P1). I started out with binoculars, ever hopeful but not expecting much due to the light pollution where I live. With my Nikon 10x50, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the location it should be hiding in, back in the interior of the Summer Triangle, which we talked about last week. I saw nothing comet-like that couldn’t be explained by my fuzzy vision. At magnitude 8, finding Comet Garradd would have been an enormous coup because, due to light pollution, I have trouble finding magnitude-8 galaxies even through my scope.

After some unsuccessful scanning, I moved on to my telescope. But first I wanted to catch a few other objects as long as I had the scope out. I spent quite a bit of time oohing and ahhing over two deep-sky targets in Sagittarius, globular cluster M22 and a behemoth nebula known as the Lagoon, M8. When I moved on to sweeping the sky inside the Summer Triangle, I once again found the Ring Nebula, Dumbbell Nebula, and Coathanger Cluster. The Coathanger Cluster really does resemble the object it was named for and actually looks better in binoculars than through the telescope.

Standing at the scope and craning my neck sideways at the eyepiece is not the most comfortable of hobbies, so I would take breaks to sit on my front step and just gaze at the constellations. I was still without a comet in the eyepiece after quite a long time searching for it when suddenly my peripheral vision was flooded with light. My son had turned on the lights on his way downstairs to grab another library book to read in bed. I turned to say hello to him through the screen door and discovered a fat green frog positioned on the front step between me and the door. I imagined how easily it would have been for me to sit on him as I was resting on the step, or for it to have hitched a ride on my back, or even for me to have just stepped on him in the dark. My son headed back upstairs and switched off the light, sending the area back into blackness. I fumbled for the phone in my pocket, turned it on and found the flashlight app, all of which couldn’t have taken more than 30 seconds. When I went to shine the light on the frog, it was gone. I swept the area, looking for where the frog might have disappeared to, but it was simply not to be found. The frog had become as elusive as Comet Garradd.

If you also have trouble spotting Garradd, it’s supposed to brighten to magnitude 7.0 in February. In addition, a brighter comet will be low in the west next month. At approximately magnitude 5.8, Comet Elenin will lie close to the star Porrima, which is the same star that Saturn paired up with over the summer. And if comets Elenin and Garradd both give you trouble, there’s always another comet waiting in the wings.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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