Comet C/2006 P1 McNaught has been gracing the UK's skies for a few days now (today is
January 8th 2007). It's a very bright comet that may well turn out to be rather spectacular
for Southern Hemisphere comet watchers. From northern latitudes (I'm at 51 degrees north) the
comet barely scrapes above the south eastern horizon before sunrise and has a fleeting
dance with the evening twilight after sunset. Couple this with the recent bout
of atrocious weather we've been having the UK and prospects for sighting P1 McNaught
didn't look hopeful.
On Saturday night (Jan 6th 2007) the clouds cleared away just as the comet was setting. I rushed down to Selsey's West Beach and just managed to catch the comet in binoculars (11x80s) about a degree above the horizon. Despite its low altitude, the comet appeared bright and showed signs of a well defined tail. Following a brief clear spell, the cloud once again drew its veil over my skies and that was that.
The BBC provide an on-line weather map which I find quite good for spotting holes in cloud. On Sunday (7th) morning I spotted the possibility of one such hole crossing overhead and to the east in the early hours of Monday (8th). Watching the forecast throughout the day, updates seemed to reinforce the appearance of the cloud hole so I decided that there was no better time to try.
My plan was to haul my telescope mount (Vixen GP-DX) down to the beach somewhere and either fix a telescope onto the mount or a camera. In the end, I managed to bodge together a dual camera mount allowing me to use my two Canon DSLR's (10D and 20Da) for the task. Everything was packed up on Sunday evening and my alarm set for 05:30.
Typically, I woke 10 minutes before the alarm went off and checked the skies. Total cloud everywhere except the far west - this was the hole coming towards me. I decided to drive down to the end of Lifeboat Way, a new estate road that leads onto the part of Selsey's East Beach, close to Selsey Bill. I set up next to the sea wall and then discovered I was in range of one of a very poorly placed security light on a house some distance away. For some reason the light kept activating bathing me in brilliant and completely unnecessary illumination a rather too frequent intervals. After this had occurred half a dozen or so times, I decided enough was enough, picked up my gear and walked onto the beach out of range!
The beach wasn't ideal as it's largely shingle with patches of sand. I forced the legs of the tripod into the shingle as far as they would go and hoped everything would be stable enough. In the end this wasn't a problem as the exposures that were taken were very short and a properly polar-aligned mount head wasn't necessary. I had also brought a telescope with me (Skywatcher 80ED Pro) but realised just as I had fixed it on the mount head that I'd left the necessary camera adapter at home! Fortunately I did have a 500mm Russian built mirror lens (f/7) with me so all was not lost on the magnification front.
After focusing both cameras on the Moon, all that was left to do was to wait...
Scanning the horizon with binoculars, there it was in a strip of clear sky between clearing cloud banks on the south-eastern horizon. Bright and unmistakable. However, the cloud wasn't clearing that quickly and I was concerned that I might lose the comet in the ever brightening dawn sky. In the event this concern was unfounded because the comet really is pretty bright. I estimated I'd lose it at 07:30 to the dawn twilight. In the end I was able to follow the comet with the naked eye until around 07:40 and lost it photographically at 07:50. The loss wasn't due to daylight either; this was the following end of the cloud hole that the BBC site had predicted. A perfect window in the murk through which to see this amazing comet. As I write this summary account, it's now raining outside. I do love it when a plan comes together!!
Now the pictures...