California Comet Adventure

by Chris Cook
Creosote Sunset
Sunset illuminates a blooming creosote bush


In early 2004, I began contemplating the idea of flying out to the clear, dark skies of the California desert to try and image a comet that was predicted to reach naked eye visibility during the first half of May. The comet was called NEAT C/2001 Q4.

Now living in Massachusetts, I knew my chances of clear skies in New England to image this comet were not very good. I called up my long time friend and fellow astrophotographer Jim Janusz to discuss plans about visiting him in Palm Desert near Palm Springs from May 11-14th, near the peak brightness of Comet NEAT. After a few emails and phone calls, we confirmed our schedules and I booked a flight to the west coast.

During our conversations, we had talked about checking my imaging equipment on the plane as baggage, which included a Takahashi FS102, Vixen 60mm guidescope assembly, Losmandy G11 and SBIG ST-4 autoguider. As our plans progressed, Jim offered his Astro-Physics Traveler(105mm f/6 EDF) refractor, Losmandy GM-8 and ST-4 to image with. This was very generous of Jim. Thank you Jim!!!!! It saved me the hassle and worry of checking a premium apochromat refractor as baggage...UGH!.... because of its size, a FS102/Scopeguard case combo must go as checked baggage according to the person I talked to at American Airlines.

For cameras and film, I brought my Nikon F3's, F2A and FTn along with numerous Nikkor lenses and rolls of Fujichrome Provia 100F, 400F and Kodak Supra 400 as carry-on. Jim shot with his Pentax 67 with 165mm and 300mm lenses on Provia 400F.

The Site

Having lived in Southern California for 12 years, I was very familiar with numerous dark-sky sites around the region. One of those sites was near the small hamlet of Desert Center in the Palen-McCoy Wilderness, about 75 miles east of Palm Desert and north of Interstate 10 off highway 177. Jim and I had imaged from the area numerous times over the years since 1996, when the last bright comet appeared in the night sky, Comet Hyakutake. This spot was very convenient being just over a hour drive from Jim's home yet having very dark skies. It was perfect!

Imaging Site near Desert Center - Dusk

The region around Desert Center contains some of the last truly dark skies left in Southern California. Several small light domes can be seen from Palm Springs, El Centro/Mexicali, Blythe and even Las Vegas over 175 miles to the north. While these domes are visible, none reach over ~8 degrees above the horizon and have zero impact on photography or observing. I conducted a LVM test back in 2002 and discovered that magnitude 7.0 stars are visible from this area when good transparency (lack of dust) allows.

The Desert Center area lies within the Colorado Desert and averages around 900ft in elevation which makes this area perfect for astronomy and astrophotography from October-May. During my visit, daytime temps averaged around 90F-100F with nighttime lows a comfortable 60F-70F. The summer months of June-September can become brutally hot with temps over 100F being the norm and sometimes reaching 115F. Humidity is extremely low, I measured the relative humidity during the three nights at no higher than 23% and as low as 9%.

Sunrise on the Coxcomb Mountains

May 11th

Tuesday evening May 11th provided clear, calm skies to get a first real view of this cosmic visitor. The comet was a pleasing site in 10x50 binoculars with a tail easily traceable out to ~6 degrees. Several successful images were taken on Provia 400F before it sank too low to the horizon. After imaging NEAT, a warm breeze picked up that soon turned into a strong wind with blowing dust. Jim and I packed up the Traveler/GM8 around 1am and headed back to his house... Nothin' like Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and hundreds of truckers making a midnight run from Phoenix to LA to keep you company on the highway.

May 12th

On Wednesday night May 12th, a friend of Jim's, Vince Bert, joined us. Vince is a member of the SDAA(San Diego Astronomy Association) and lives in Solana Beach just north of San Diego. Along with Vince came his beautiful 20" f/4.5 truss tube reflector w/Feather Touch focuser made by Night Sky Scopes. This scope is truly a work of art. Beautiful wood work and a excellent mirror!!!(but its no Zambuto.... ;-)) The three of us enjoyed stunning views of the comet with a 20mm Nagler. I could easily makes out several jets coming directly off the nucleus along with a very structured tail that could be traced numerous degrees back from the coma. Too me, it was reminiscent of viewing Comet Hyakutake's brilliant nucleus and coma! As I commented at the time, "That view alone was worth flying 3000mi for." Down right awesome.

While the ST-4 clicked away on comet NEAT as more Provia 400F was exposed through the A-P Traveler, we hunted down M101, M51, M22, M55, M8, M20 and M11 along with more obscure objects like the Hercules Galaxy Cluster and Stephen's Quintet. The M8/M20 region was also photographed with the Traveler. A spectacular starlit desert night.

Vince assembles his 20" f/4.5

May 13th

Thursday May 13th brought another friend to our group. My buddy Richard Payne from Phoenix drove over for a night of photography. I met Richard at Sunglow Ranch, Arizona back in 2000 during another astrophotography trip. He's currently shooting with a homemade 9" f/2.5 Schmidt Camera that rides on top an Astro-Physics 1200GTO mount. Richard did all of the tube fabrication while Dave Rowe made the optics. This is a camera you have to see to believe. It is truly the ultimate in wide-field imaging! More information on his camera can be found on his website.

Richard with his 9" Schmidt Camera

Schmidt Corrector

Thursday evening started off clear and a image of the comet was captured with the Traveler and Supra 400 just after the end of astronomical twilight, but within a few hours, high cirrus clouds moved in from the west. As the evening progressed, Jim, Vince, Richard and I sat around BS'ing about astronomy and photography along with other topics. Richard then brought out a black light he purchased several months back. A black light emits UV light which can in certain insects and arthropods, illuminate them. One of those arthropods is the scorpion. A scorpion's body will fluoresce under UV light making them glow a vibrant fluorescent green color. Having heard about this phenomenon, I was very skeptical if it actually worked. Richard proceeded to walk around the camp and BINGO! there were two scorpions inside the camp between the trucks! Upon further investigation, we found a total of nine of the little bastards within several hundred feet of the camp! The largest was around 2" long. Needless to say, after our "discovery" we all became paranoid about every itch etc.... :-o

Below is a image Jim took of one of the scorpions with his Nikon Coolpix digicam while Richard illuminated it with the black light.

Black Lit Scorpion

Around 2:30am, the high cirrus moved off to the east and south leaving a beautiful clear sky as the summer Milky Way, etched with countless dark nebulae, arched from horizon to horizon. I decided to image the scene with the 16mm f/2.8 fisheye on Supra 400. At that time, Vince crawled out of his truck after several hours of sleep so we turned his 20" on various summer deep-sky targets. Again, what a scope! Soon, the old waning crescent Moon cleared the distant cactus covered hills and dawn started to brighten the sky, signaling the end of my journey to photograph Comet NEAT C/2001 Q4.

Good Friends & Dark Desert Skies!
From L to R: Jim Janusz, Richard Payne, Chris Cook, Vince Bert

All in all it was a very successful trip full of dark skies, a bright comet and the company of good friends.

Please follow this link to view all the comet and deep-sky images taken over the three nights of imaging.

All text and photos are © Copyright Chris Cook and Jim Janusz

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© Chris Cook 2004