Comet C/2001 Q4 NEAT Observations, May 15-16, 2004

On May 15th, at approximately 9:15 pm CST, I observed Comet Neat (C/2001 Q4). Going into my backyard and armed with the skymap that showed it was just to the north of the Beehive cluster (M44) in the western sky, I thought it'd be easy to find. Unfortunately, there was significant haze in the air, obscuring the extended objects. A naked eye visual scan didn't reveal either M44 or the comet. I had my 10x50 binoculars with me, and following a path from the twin stars in Gemini (Castor and Pollux) making up the base of a very acute triangle, I quickly found the comet and the beehive together in the same field of view. Luckily it was high up in the sky, clearing my house's roof quite easily. The comet's appearance was merely a bright fuzzy center surrounded by a fainter fuzzy circular area. I looked to see if it appeared lop-sided as some reports had indicated, but saw no evidence of it myself. I went inside the house and brought out and setup my 76mm Newtonian scope. After a brief cool-down period, I found the comet again with the binoculars, then noted it's place in the sky visually (I *thought* was just able to barely make it out naked-eye, but wasn't sure), and then trained the scope in that spot. The comet was immediately visible in the field of view of my 26mm eyepiece. The telescopic view wasn't much of an improvement, as it dimmed the comet considerably and I wasn't able to make out any structure. Still visible was the brighter central region surrounded by the fainter coma.

As a happy bonus, I happened to look in the northwestern sky and saw what at first appeared to be a high-altitude airplane flying overhead. But the color was off, and the speed was different than I usually see there (my house is under an approach path, so I see a lot of planes flying at different altitudes). Since it looked like a spacecraft (but was very bright), I aimed the binoculars at it to see if I could see any navigation lights. None were present, and at that point I knew I was seeing the ISS (which I haven't seen for at least a year). The most surprising thing to me was it's brightness - the last time I saw the ISS, it was relatively faint. I even followed it with my scope, but didn't change the eyepiece so I could still track it at low power. Not much to see since I wasn't magnifying it much. I followed it with the scope until it disappeared behind the rooftops toward the northeast.

Back to the comet, and after my eyes had dark adapted further (while I was trying to play hide-n-seek with a neighbor's house lights), I viewed the comet again through the binoculars and thought I saw some of it's tail extending through M44. However, I wasn't convinced and remained so for the rest of the night. I attempted to take some stand-alone photos of it with my 35mm SLR and the 50mm lens, so will see how they come out when I get the film developed.

The next night, I viewed the comet again, and it had obviously moved from it's previous position the night before, being further away from M44 (northwest of it). It's appearance was the same, but this time I believe I was able to see about 2 degrees of it's tail sweeping off to the left (south) of the comet. This I saw with averted vision and slightly moving the binoculars to "jiggle" the image, which brought out the faint difference between the sky and the comet's tail. There was more haze in the air this night, precluding making any further photograph attempts. Just prior to viewing the comet, though, I was able to see 2 Iridium flares low in the western sky (251 degrees azimuth). The first was about magnitude 1 at 10:51 pm and moving horizontally from south to north (the prediction said -1, so I almost missed it), but the second which was right on time (11:00 pm CDT), was the predicted -1 magnitude, moving horizontally in the same direction. I took a time-exposure of both of these (covering the camera lens between exposures to get them both on 1 frame), but since it was hazy I'm not sure how it'll come out.

Overall, this was a very successful viewing of the comet, and I'm glad the weather cooperated so that I could see it. I was pleased to find that the comet had reached perihelion on the night that I viewed it, so I couldn't ask for a better timing. And, getting to see the ISS and 2 Iridium flares on the two nights that I got to see the comet, were welcomed bonuses as well - especially since I haven't viewed any satellite activity for a long time.