Dhumketu NEOWISE

Photo by Samir Patel

That’s one of the words describing a comet in Sanskrit.  In Indian mythology dhumketu (comet) is associated with two demons, Rahu and Kethu.  Lord Vishnu (the preserver in the Hindu triad (Trimurti, others being Brahma and Shiva) cut off the heads of Rahu and Ketu as they tried to drink the elixir along with the gods, using a deception.  The Sun and Moon gods who noticed this reported to Vishnu, who then cut off their heads to prevent the elixir entering their bodies.  As a result, their bodies perished but their heads remained immortal; later they assumed serpent bodies and continue to roam around the bramhand (universe) — Information courtesy www.hinduwebsite.com/symbolism/symbols/comet.asp

While photographing Comet NEOWISE was not quite as torturous as this story, here is my journey:

7/12/2020 — This is my first comet observing and imaging with a tail (previous being comet Wirtanen which had no tail).  The adventure started with Gowrishankar L. inviting me to image the comet from downtown Jersey City, along with Chirag Upreti on 7/12.  As always, all the planning was done by our local mathematician Gowri.  We showed up at the time he mentioned (3:30am in the morning!) and were presented with a view of the comet.  It was visible with naked eye and proved fairly easy to capture on the sensor of the camera with a short telephoto lens (having no experience on imaging a comet I was not sure whether it could be imaged on a first try).  The equipment used here was a Sony A7R camera with an old-generation Samyang  135mm f/2 lens.  We also took turns to look at the comet through binoculars and a night-vision scope.

7/18/2020 — The second attempt was from Jenny Jump State Park (I’m a regular visitor and a member).  It was a last-minute decision to head out as the weather prospects improved.  AAA members Jeff Williams and Dan Sullivan joined late in the night.  I had plans to image the comet through my telescope but the night was ruined by me not being able to find the comet through the scope (530mm f5).  Another issue I ran into was my mount’s declination locking knob, which went loose and came off (this caused the mount not to be able to go to the target properly).  It explained why I couldn’t find the comet as the dec movement was loose on the mount (it turned out to be an easy fix next day; the hard part was to find the proper hex key).  After struggling a bit, I was able to lock the dec arm with fingers instead, attached an eyepiece to my scope, aligned the comet in the center, and reattached the camera.  The comet had gone very low by this time but I was able to get away with a few shots.  I also was able to take a live view of the comet through a night-vision scope.

Photo by Samir Patel
Photo by Samir Patel

Comet Neowise – UACNJ Night Vision Video

7/20/2020 — Third attempt to image was from my township, again with my scope; having learned the lesson from the Jenny Jump trip, I attached a finder scope this time and aligned the scope beforehand.  Finding the comet proved a bit easier this time.  The issue I ran into this time was that my scope was pointing into a lit-up school (6th grade Middle School).  Another issue was coming up with a proper exposure for the comet.  Having had no prior experience, I went with what felt right at the time (given a chance I would now go for a longer exposure to get more details).  The following image is from my 530mm f5 scope using a Sony A7R camera; exposure was 6 seconds at ISO 400.  The video shows how my scope was pointed toward a lit-up school and the general direction of comet.

Comet Neowise – Local Township Video

7/24/2020 — Fourth attempt.  This was a big one, thanks to Gowri,  who pestered a few of us to go out to this amazing location in upstate New York.  We traveled out to Ashokan Reservoir on a Friday as the weather forecast was promising.  We lucked out on the weather part as we were rewarded with clearest skies I’ve seen in a while.  Catherine Odal along with Gowri and George Preoteasa showed up at the expected time, and our adventure of imaging a comet from dark skies started.  I used a Star Adventurer tracker along with a Sony A7R camera and Samyang 135mm lens.  The second setup consisted of a Sony A7S taking timed exposures with a 24mm lens.  I remember seeing a very faint comet with naked eyes and binoculars once the cameras were set up.  A group of youngsters came along; both Gowri and Cat helped them get their very first comet and Milky Way images.  The joy on their faces of getting something on the camera screens was the highlight of that day.  Both members took time and patiently answered so many questions along with handling their own multiple rigs.  A job well done, both — so proud of you guys; you are the best.  Here’s my humble attempt of capturing the ion tail and my very first attempt at time-lapse for that night.  I think either I or someone else bumped into the tripod, as I can see the frames move a couple of places in the video.

Photo by Samir Patel
Photo by Samir Patel

Comet Neowise – 7/24/2020 – Ashokan Reservoir Video 1

7/25/2020 –– (Next day) Imaging was not on my mind after a late previous night.  However Gowrishankar pushed to get there as the weather prospects were favorable and most likely the last time we would see the comet.  Surprisingly my wife tagged along, which helped a lot.  It turned out to be a mini AAA star party, as there were two groups doing imaging from two different locations.  The weather did not turn out to be as expected (some clouds rolled in) but we made the best of this night and gave our proper sendoff to the comet, and wished him/her a good journey back.  On our side of the group, we had Gowri, Cat, George, Faissal Halim, and my wife and I. Here’s my second attempt at time-lapse from this night.

Comet Neowise – 7/25/2020 – Ashokan Reservoir Video 2


Samir Patel is a member of the Astrophotography group @aaany_astrophotography.  You can see more of Samir’s photos @charotarguy