01/21/2015 05:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Four Nights With Comet Lovejoy


The news media has been abuzz regarding the recently discovered Comet Lovejoy in January, as it passed earth and brightened as it made its closest approach to the sun. Although it is being referred to as a "binocular comet", best seen with binoculars, a sensitive digital camera or a small telescope, if you look near the star cluster Pleiades, you may be able to see it nearby, looking like a fuzzy star. Pleaiades is the bright cluster of stars you'll see high overhead in the evening sky from mid-northern latitudes, such as Europe and much of North America and Asia.

On clear nights in January I've been capturing photos of the comet, known to astronomers as Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy. Last night I enjoyed the best viewing conditions so far. Seen under the dark skies of California's Eastern Sierra region, even its long tail showed up well. Knowing where to look (near Pleiades) I was able to just make it our with my eyes, and find it with a 70-200 mm lens. Using a Canon 70D DLSR, its "crop sensor" gave me the equivalent of 320 mm focal length. I even added a 2X teleconverter to bring the effective focal length to a massive 640 mm!

I used an external interval timer to capture one-minute exposures until the camera's battery power ran out nearly 2.5 hours later. I had the camera placed on an inexpensive star-tracking mount to follow the comet as the earth rotated. I converted the resulting 147 exposures to video, and with 640 mm zoom, over the course of 2 hours you can see the comet move against the starry background!

Here are the results of several nights shooting, at effective focal lengths of 28 mm, 35 mm, 320 mm and 640 mm. The video is best viewed full screen, switched to HD 1080p quality:

I hope that I get more clear nights this month to shoot the comet, as it gradually moves away from the earth and the sun on its big lap of our solar system.