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Comet NEOWISE from Laguna Mountains

After finding C/2020 F3 “NEOWISE” here in Rancho Bernardo in the evening sky, in our own neighborhood, I’ve become a bit comet crazy, I must admit. :) Seeing and photographing it is a unique opportunity. Perhaps we’re the only human beings to ever see and photograph it, who knows?

That thought certainly contributed to my fascination with it, and the other is how the experience of seeing this ball of ice glowing in the night sky with one’s own eyes (the comet is estimated to be only about 5 km / 3 miles in diameter) gives us a glimpse into the truly “cosmic” scale of the universe. The canopy of stars seems “flat” and unchanging, but this object that appears in and moves through the night sky changes that perception.

I can link it to a solar eclipse: when the moon moves in to obscure the sun, and the birds stop singing and the temperature drops, it reveals the fragility of our planet, the irrelevance of our existence, the laughableness of what we think of as “our problems”, dire as they may seem. The comet will return in about 6800 years – and down here, we’re arguing about wearing a piece of cloth in our faces for a few months. Just relax.

Anyway! :)

After my first photos from Rancho Bernardo on Thursday, limited by light pollution and atmospheric conditions, my friend Tracy and I went up into the Laguna Mountains the following evening, to photograph the comet from there – which was much better with regards to its visibility but alas, the “foreground” we were hoping for (hoping is an expression of “lack of thorough research” in this context;-) didn’t work out.

What also didn’t work was using my 200-500mm lens at 500mm to get a better photo – it was too windy, and even limiting the exposure time to just one second wasn’t good enough to capture a sharp image. From a very long focal length, I gradually turned to wide angle, and after photographing NEOWISE with a bit of silhouetted landscape, I eventually decided to just give up on the idea of “foreground”, and limit my framing to just the stars and the comet.

I quite like how this image turned out, showing comet and Big Dipper:

This is an “exposure stack” – a combination of 13 single images with an exposure time of 8 seconds each, at ISO 3200 (31mm focal length, f/2.8). What especially fascinated me was seeing the “split tail” of the comet in this photo, and I regretted not having captured another sequence, at a little bit longer focal length. Meaning: I had to go back! :)

Before that though, I went up the street again in our neighborhood Sunday evening, to try and get some frames for exposure stacking at 500mm – at least it wouldn’t be as windy here in Rancho Bernardo as it was at the Laguna Crest! I updated my previous post with this image and I’m including it here as well. I love the turquoise glow, but you can see that the amount of stars around the comet, and the definition of its tail, is a bit limited by light pollution.

And then yesterday evening, I went back to the Laguna Mountains, for another attempt. Once more, 500mm didn’t work up there – too much wind. And as much as I would have loved an image with the silhouetted Cuyamaca Mountain range, the comet was a little bit east of north peak even, and there was an unfortunate amount of smoke at the horizon as well (I wasn’t aware of any fires, but that haze sure was smoke).

An so I went with 85mm focal length and made another photo of comet and stars, and it shows the split tails (bigger dust tail and thinner ion tail) nicely too. This is an exposure stack of 20 images at 2 seconds each, ISO 3200 and f/2.4 – and probably my favorite from the comet chasing. The night sky up in the Lagunas is spectacular of course, and the sheer amount of more faint stars that the exposure stacking process brings out, in addition to reducing noise, is simply fantastic:

And with that, I can let go of this momentary obsession, and bid farewell to “NEOWISE” as it disappears from view, into deep space… godspeed, you interplanetary traveler, and thanks for the visit.

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2 thoughts on “Comet NEOWISE from Laguna Mountains”

  1. Great images! Really beautiful! I have captured it a bit as well but have not seen the split tail, that is cool! May I ask what you use to exposure stack? I had not heard of that process before.

    • Thanks Shelly, happy to hear that you like the photos! For the exposure stacking you can use a software called Sequator, on Windows (it’s donationware), and on a Mac there’s the paid Starry Landscape Stacker software. I used both and they’re really easy to understand.


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