Archive for March 8, 2021

03/08/2021 – Ephemeris – 45 years ago today I saw and photographed Comet West!

March 8, 2021 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for International Women’s Day, Monday, March 8th. Today the Sun will be up for 11 hours and 32 minutes, setting at 6:40, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:05. The Moon, 3 days past last quarter, will rise at 5:34 tomorrow morning.

On this day 45 years ago, in 1976, during the first year of these Ephemeris programs I was able to report on, observe and photograph the brightest comet I had seen up till that time: Comet West. It was not supposed to be a bright comet, but as it rounded the Sun, it began to brighten spectacularly. Later I found out that it’s nucleus broke into several fragments, liberating a great quantity of gas and dust. It turned out to be a very dusty comet which ended up in a broad and bright tail. It was going to be visible before sunrise, and this was the first morning in a while it was clear. Even before the head of the comet rose, the tail could be seen rising in the east. I was able to get several photographs of this wonderful comet!

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


Comet West at 6 am, March 8, 1976

Comet West, C/1975 V1, as photographed by me at about 6 am, March 8, 1976. The wide, curved dust tail is most prominent with the narrow blue ion tail pointed more directly at the rising Sun. The small summer constellation of Delphinus the dolphin is to the upper right. The diamond shape of stars at the front of the dolphin’s body is an asterism called Job’s Coffin.

In the image above is tilted about 45 degrees to the horizon in the lower left due to the fact that it was on an equatorial mount, where up and down is north and south in the sky, horizontally is east and west. It’s cocked 45 degrees to the horizon because we are at 45 degrees latitude. Actually the angle is 90 – your latitude which around here is 90 – 45 = 45.

I got up early in the morning of March 8th 1976. I had my telescope mount outside because it takes awhile to set it up to true north and everything. The telescope and camera that mounts on it were taken inside. I just left it there covered with a tarp and wasn’t observing too much that winter. When I got up in wee hours of the morning of the eighth I found out that my telescope mount was buried in the middle of a snowdrift, so I had to dig it out. As I was digging it out I looked to the east and saw the tail of the comet rising before the head did. I then redoubled my efforts and got everything set up so I could take photographs of the comet.

I had built a small telescope a few years before for a solar eclipse as a kind of contingency camera in case my automatic cameras I had built didn’t work. It was a 108 mm f/6 reflecting telescope that I attached a camera back to and took some minute or two long exposures that way. I then realized that the sky was getting brighter, so I quickly switched, and took a couple of wide angle pictures with the 50 mm lens with tracking. That’s one of them above that shows the lovely comet with the long tail.

Comet West 108mm f/6

Comet West taken through the 108 mm f/6 telescope around 5:30 am, March 8, 1976 by a much younger me.