Chasing comet a celestial delight

Chronicle reporter Ryleigh Norgrove spends time out near the Dee WrightObservatory in hopes of catching a glimpse of a comet. While that didn’t exactly pan out as planned, she still has many adventures from that night worth recounting. Captured by Bob Williams

Hercules Cluster captured by Bradley Cook’s Celestron 14HD telescope on July 13 over the Dee Wright Observatory on the OldMcKenzie Highway.

Expectations happen – everywhere, all the time. We expect rain to animate the creek and the bus to pull up any minute. We expect the small, intimate things to be easy and the big things to be hard. And that night, Brad, Bob and I expected to catch a comet. Now, star wrangling isn’t an easy sport – it’s a craft. It takes patience, the ability to withstand wind chill at altitude, an eye for light, a healthy love for IPAs and a few good friends to share them with. Most importantly, you need gear. This is where Brad comes in. He owns a Celestron 14HD Telescope – a machine with the power to lasso the heavens, map mountain ranges on the moon and photograph nebulas. This whole trip was his brainchild. He’s been photographing the moon in exquisite detail for months – and was kind enough to let us come along for the ride. With shaky coordinates and only a few hours of sleep between the three of us, we set out to the Dee Wright Observatory to race the setting sun. Dusk unraveled into astronomical twilight – marking the point when the sun no longer interferes with your viewing of the stars. (All that means is that it was damn dark.) Open and raw, the summer land seemed tense, pulled taut and upwards. Within all this flatness, purpose tilted it toward the quiet dark – toward our house of sky with its curtains drawn for the night. A thunderstorm grumbled loudly nearby and clouds gathered on our periphery. We set up Brad’s equipment quickly, before the full moon rose and shone bright enough to block our view of the comet. We waited until the clouds passed to start programming the Celestron’s alignment. We began by finding the star Polaris. Once Polaris was visible, Brad started a two-star calibration, allowing the Celestron to locate itself in relation to each star. Once this process was finished, Brad set the polar alignment with three additional stars. Once he completed that to the computer’s satisfaction, we were ready to slew throughout the heavens. We double checked our polar alignment by aiming at the Hercules Cluster – and capturing it in frame. A smudge of light appeared to the west, and we looked upward hopefully, but Brad shook his head: it was just a few headlights reflected by clouds. We discussed conflicting reports: the comet might be possible to see with the naked eye, it might not. Either way, we’d have to track it manually – the Celestron is programmed to find star clusters, planets and fixed locations – not transient streaks in the sky. Nevertheless, we waited, and the stars glittered promisingly above the snowgloved peaks of the Three Sisters. I stared upwards. However, gazing up at the heavens in the hope of being granted a vision of celestial proportions is an activity that quickly starts to feel absurd, even delusional, after a while. The nature of these wonder-chasing trips is that your success rate sooner or later gets entangled with your feelings about what you deserve. Were we unworthy in some way? Was I holding some cosmic grudge and paying the price? How possible is it to photograph a comet? We discussed why the stars look so much better in pictures. Bob explained that the atmosphere was its own lens, obscuring our view above through the Earth’s rotation. So to produce a vivid image, you need to set a long exposure and allow the camera to take in more light than the human eye. Cameras can turn even relatively weak displays into dramatic landscapes – and, in post, snapshot after snapshot is layered to bring out detail in a once blurry-and-dark picture. Some programs merge upwards of 600 shots. Together, these improvements encourage unrealistic expectations – something I was beginning to understand firsthand. At last, a pool of clear sky opened among the clouds, and the comet ran loose. It was go time. A tense couple of minutes followed, in which Brad and I seemed to be watching an elemental standoff between darkness and light – trying to let in just enough to catch the comet in frame, but not too much to scare it off. We pointed and shot. Pointed. Shot. With no luck. All the while, the clouds kept moving forward, creeping into our sightline and fi nally blocking out the stars. In the end, we took some photos of the now breathtakingly bright full moon. But it’s hard to gauge the documentary status of those shots. Do they memorialize my evening or the cameras? I think that question is at the heart of star-wrangling: our sensory experience is woven into the eye of the camera and not our own. I recognized that, too, as a metaphor – one echoed by the blurred images themselves. One thought dogged me as I was taking the photos and again when I saw them on Brad’s computer: in the grand scheme of things, these photos frame a fraction of a second in light. And as our vision was obscured by the lens of the atmosphere, it wasn’t just the Earth’s movement that the camera would register, but our own, too. We were also in motion, and just passing through. That’s a sobering thought, and it reminds us that while we are here, we have a choice before us: not about what we see, but how we see. A choice that can position our gaze as relational and governed, like the forests and rivers and hills and seas, by the greater forces that rule us. A part relationship that privileges neither world nor worldview, but dares to imagine both as inhabiting the creative, empathetic space in between. The thin space. If this is a choice we can make, perhaps dusk will again become the beginning of the day. Maybe we’ll catch a comet.



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