This article appeared in the Winter 1985-86 edition of the local astronomy club's publication, the "Inside Orbit."


CATCHING HALLEY'S COMET

Kevin S. Jung
Argo Navis Observatory

The acquisition of Halley's Comet from the James C. Veen Observatory in October of 1985 was not just a lucky, one-shot observation. It all started during the April meeting of the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association at the Veen Observatory, when Gary Ross and I did some quick mental calculations and began formulating a plan to begin an extensive search for the comet starting in the middle of August.

In the succeeding months, we polished up the plans. We finally got the chance to put them into operation during a few clear nights in the middle part of August. At approximately 08:22 Universal Time (UT) on August 17th, Gary M. Ross, Keith V. Snedegar, John Wasciuk, and myself made the first attempt to find the comet. After a painstaking search, we were unsuccessful in our task.

During the next two months, there were other attempts to sight Comet Halley, by the same four observers and also Jerry Persha and Ron Vander Werff, with Anthony Morehouse, James Ashley, and others also trying to "catch" the comet. But while we all were trying to find the comet, the bane of astronomers every-where took control. The weather was extremely cloudy and rain was always falling on everyone's hopes. Those nights that were clear enough to observe also happened to have the moon high in the sky, making all serious attempts at comet hunting fruitless. At times like these, attention turned to observing brighter, less transient objects like the moon, the planets, some brighter nebulas, and other "stable" wonders of the Celestial Sphere.

When conditions were good enough for observing, once again finder charts would be brought out and telescopes uncovered to continue the search. At times, I would be unable to attend, but Persha or Vander Werff would often fill my place. Sometimes Wasciuk could not be there, and at other times, neither could Snedegar. In fact, Keith could not complete the vigil, as he had to return to England to further his studies at Oxford.

At times during these long nights, it would seem that the comet was daring us to find it. We would arrive at the exact coordinates for the comet, using the finder charts from "Sky and Telescope" and "Astronomy" magazines, along with Antonin Becvar's "Atlas of the Heavens" and Wil Tiron's "Sky Atlas 2000.0" star charts as extra reference, but the comet was just not there. We would have nights where the apparent limiting magnitude was down in the middle +14's, excellent seeing, but still no comet. (Later information that I found stated that the magnitude of the comet in middle August was approximately magnitude +14.5 to +14.8). We were striking out every time for seemingly no reason. There were times when fatigue and/or eyestrain would lead us to believe that we were seeing the comet, but if we were, no one else could give visual confirmation of the fact

Just as we were getting weary of the chase, in the third week of October, there came the promise of a few nights that might become clear enough to finally find what we were now calling "the invisible comet." There was even some talk of it as being a "fake" or "a big hoax" but we valiantly struggled to find it. We hoped that it would happen soon and we could get down to the business of serious observing and recording data on the comet, along with photographing it.

Tuesday, October was cloudy during the day, but when I got home from work at 22:00 UT, I turned on the television and watched as the meteorologist called for partial clearing for the area tonight. By partial clearing, he meant that some areas would be clear while others would be totally overcast. I called Ron and we discussed the plan of attack for that night if it turned out to be clear. If it was clear, I would call him at work, and then I would meet him at the observatory at approximately 07:15 UT Wednesday morning to start the search. The rest of the evening was uneventful, and when my alarm clock activated at 08:45, I looked out of my window and saw a lot of clouds. Normally, when I look out of my bedroom window in the winter months, I can see Sirius very easily, but tonight the stars were covered completely by clouds. I didn't call Ron and turned over and went back to bed. Meanwhile, Ron had looked out of the door at the store where he was working, and saw clear skies overhead. He was on the south side of Grand Rapids, and I was on the north side, so when I saw the clouds out my window, he saw clear skies with some clouds to the north (over my house). He went out to the Observatory, where it was also clear, and proceeded to start the search by himself, using the 12.5-inch Borr Reflector in the west dome. By using the charts and the setting circles, he looked into the eyepiece and began to sweep the field, until a very small, very dim object came into view. It was in the right position, but having not had much experience with comet observing and no one else there to confirm the sighting, he memorized the field of view for later reference.

That morning Ron called me at work and wanted to know why I wasn't at the Observatory. I told him about the clouds over my house, and after some more discussion, I promised to call him even if it was cloudy at my house, just in case the same thing happened that night. When my alarm went off at 06:45 UT Thursday morning, October 17th, I looked out my window and Sirius stared back at me from a totally clear sky. I immediately called Ron and said, "It's clear, let's do it." He said he would wait until I came by and we would both go out to the Observatory at the same time. I was dressed and out the door in ten minutes and arrived at Ron's about fifteen minutes later. We both took off for the Observatory and arrived at approximately 07:25 UT to find Anthony Morehouse just opening the dome to the 12.5-inch telescope in the west dome.

We raced into the building and Ron signed us in as I opened the Argo Navis dome on the other side of the building, where the Celestron 11-inch Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, which belongs to Jim Marron, was housed. Ascending the stairs, I opened the dome and started spreading out my charts as the dome slit was rising. The dome was already oriented to the correct area of the sky, so I moved the telescope to what I thought was Xi2 Orionis. I swept the field with the scope, but for some reason I could only get M-35, the cluster in Gemini, in the field. Suddenly, I realized my mistake! I had mistaken Eta Geminorum for Xi2 Orionis! Immediately, I corrected the error and once again swept the field of view. Then suddenly there it was: Halley's Comet! It was small, dim, and somewhat(it diffuse with a stellar-like nucleus. Without taking my eye from the ocular I said, "Ron, take a look. Is that what you saw last night?" When he said yes, I said, "That's it. That's Halley's Comet!" We looked at the clock in the dome, which read 07:38 UT Letting out a big yell of joy, I ran down the stairs to the library while Ron kept his eye on the comet.

I immediately called Gary Ross, who must have been sitting next to the phone, because he picked it up on the first ring. I told him that we had found the comet and had it in the field of view at the moment. He said okay and hung up, and five minutes later, he and Jerry Persha arrived at the Observatory. They went up into the dome and after I looked to see that it was still in the field, I let Gary look. His first words were, "So this is it. Are you sure?" I said, "Gary, I have been waiting almost twenty years to see this comet. I'm sure." He and Jerry both looked at it.

Anthony came over from the other dome, and stood at the bottom of the stairs and asked us what the field looked like. Then he said that he had it in the other telescope (this was at 08:00). He went back over to the 12.5-inch scope and observed some more. We (Gary, Jerry, Ron, and I) looked at the comet for a while longer and after a toast to the comet and Edmund Halley, Gary and Jerry went back home, leaving Ron and I to finish our observing, although nothing else we looked at that night could compare to sighting the comet. About 10:00 UT, we left and went home, where I received a call from the Grand Rapids Press at 11:45 UT wanting to know about the sighting of the comet. They also talked to Ron, and in the paper that day was a nice article about the comet.

We saw the comet a few more times that month. I showed it to James Ashley and Steve Stoffer, and then it clouded up until November 7th, when we got another look at it and I took some photographs of the comet, along with other things. The rest of the month was mostly cloudy, but on December 2nd, it cleared up right at sunset. Coming home from work, I changed clothes and raced out to the Observatory, arriving at approximately 22:20 UT, to find Gary Ross already in the 12.5-inch dome, preparing to look for the comet. We were looking out the opening of the dome in the vicinity of southern Pegasus when I spotted something very faint about three degrees from the circlet of Pisces. I said, "Gary, there it is." He didn't believe me until I pointed the scope at it and he looked into the finder scope, where he saw the comet in the field of view. Gary then stepped back and sighted up the edge of the scope and then saw it with the naked eye also. He said, "Well, you saw it at 23:30 UT with the naked-eye. That was the last thing to search for." We observed the comet for a while, estimating its magnitude at +6.3, and showed it to Bob Baumbach, who had just arrived with his Astronomy class from Grand Rapids Junior College. We didn't have much time to look at the comet, because it clouded up at 00:30 Universal Time.

Since then, there have only been a few clear nights, and I have observed the comet on those rare occasions. I am still excited every time that I view it, but nothing can compare to that night back in October when it swam into the field of view. That was the culmination of almost twenty years of waiting, ever since 1966, when I received Zim's "Golden Book of Stars" and my mother told me that after I read the section about Halley's Comet, I immediately went outside and tried to find the comet in my small two-inch refractor that I got for my birthday. It has been a long time and a long wait, but it was worth it.


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