Monday, December 26, 2011

Comets, Sunrise and Disappointment

Mt Kaukau lookout, 24 December 2011

An amazing thing happened recently in our humble solar system. A comet passed closer to the sun than it should have, and survived to come around the other side! For those of us in the Southern Hemisphere, it was significant in that it emerged with an impressively long and visible tail which could be seen in the southern skies without a telescope. The comet's unofficial name is Lovejoy (after the guy in Australia who spotted it first), and who couldn't use a little more love and joy these days?

G and I decided that something so rare and impressive was worth getting out of bed for - even if it meant being up well before the crack of dawn. We implemented our Lovejoy strategy. For the best viewing opportunity, we would get up at 4am, drive to the base of Mt Kaukau (about a 5 minute drive from our house) and hike up to the summit to see and hopefully photograph the comet.

It all started well. At 4am we crawled out of bed and looked out of our front door to the east. There, almost vertical in the sky, was a pale streak of light - Lovejoy! We quickly dressed and headed out for the hills.

Since Mt Kaukau is our local hill, we're pretty familiar with the route up, and had no trouble with our pre-dawn wander using our headlamps.

What we hadn't quite counted on was how long before the actual sunrise the sky would begin to get light. By the time we hit the ridgeline, at 4:45, the sky was getting pale and the comet's tail was nowhere to be seen!

The pre-dawn light at around 4:45am

It was disappointing, but we'd already done the worst of the climbing and since we'd packed a thermos of tea and some snacks, we kept going until we reached the summit at around 5:15. Sitting at the lookout, we were able to enjoy the morning mists over Wellington and the Makara windfarm.

Makara wind farm, and the South Island seen beyond

Finally, at around 5:45, the sun poked out from behind the Rimutaka mountains across the harbour. After taking some photos, we packed up and headed back home for a nap.

Sunrise over the Rimutakas seen across Wellington Harbour

Not ones to give up easily, we got up even earlier the next morning - at around 3:20am. Rather than repeat our excursion, we headed for a small nature reserve just a block from our house, where there's a hill just high enough to let us see over the houses.

While Lovejoy was visible again, it was a bit more faint than the previous day and our attempts to take a photo were once again fruitless.

See the comet? No, me neither. I swear it was really there!

One of these days I need to really work on my photography skills and figure out how to do those super-long exposures. Anyway, I wouldn't want to leave you all too disappointed after all of this reading, so here is a gorgeous photo of comet Lovejoy taken by the fine folks at NASA.

Thanks NASA (show offs!)