Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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A Date and Comet PANSTARRS.

On Thursday, March 14, 2013. I wanted to see the comet for the first time on my own. But more importantly, I wanted Donna to share it with me. Donna hadn't seen a comet. I'd seen a few, and I wasn't really cognizant of them years ago. I'd always wanted to share the stars with her, especially a unique, 100 million-year orbit Oort Cloud starry messenger. So, I took work off early, bolted even while I knew that I had lots of work on the table, and even after a big layoff bout at where I work just days before. The slow markets were taking their toll, and I wanted to get past all the muck flying around as co-workers were let go. The comet, however, knew no schedule other than its own. It was to pass over our heads just once, returning long after every nation I knew or ever will know will have passed away and been replaced by many, many more. This comet was visiting us from nearly the next star, and in its ice were held the dust of eons, the tiniest flecks of the origin of our Sun and Earth. I wanted to she this singular moment with my wife and friend.

So, I ran in from the subway, and we got bundled up for the cold, or at least Donna did. I was woefully underdressed, and I was still chilly even the next morning. But, we girded ourselves and hurriedly tromped down the stairs to get the telescope. The Sun was lover in the sky, and I knew I had to move with deliberate speed. 30 minutes later, we had loaded up the gear from the storage unit, or more specifically, The Observatory, and we made our way. At the last moment, Donna suggested we also take the binoculars that were a gift from a grand class. So, the electric cart hurdled down the street and up into the park at a breathtaking walking pace. We chatted, and realized that it was colder than we had thought. The Sun was setting rapidly, only a hand above the horizon as we walked through Inwood Hill Park, and the electric wheels hauled the 200 pounds of observing equipment in what amounted to a race. We were also racing the clouds. Donna and I looked westward, seeing some foreboding near-horizon clouds, and we looked at each other wondering if the cold and the two hours prep and takedown would be spoiled by an opaque condensation of water. As we arrived at Bear Rock Meadow, the Sun was just about to graze the horizon. Donna jumped on the binoculars, and started hunting. We were alone for only a short time, as Sam and Ben and Arturo and a happenstance dog-walker hovered around. I built the 15" scope from the box, my fingers seeming to burn already from the freezing air and gusty winds. But it was set up well, and it was time to get the show on the road.

Now the hunt was on. Donna needed an extra jacket, and I gave her mine. She hates the cold, but we both wanted to bag that comet. Our companions were helpful, with Arturo having seen it up there just days before in my first, but failed attempt to see the elusive beast. Donna's teeth chattered, but her Russian hat kept her head warm. With the addition of the rain-tarp, she was shielded from the wind. The sky darkened, and the comet refused to be seen. It was hiding up in those low clouds. We had a ten-degree window above the horizon, holding steady. Sam was running around playing with the friendly dog. The dog outmassed young Sam by two times, and was stronger by a lot, but their combined youthful exuberance was part of the expectant joy of the known comet.

Then, after going back and forth between the binocs and the scope, I found it. There it was in the binocs, tail pointing away from the Sun, shimmering like a little fish in a reddish sea. I got Donna on the binocs right away, and immediately there was a peal of joy: "There it is! I see the comet!" Sam jumped up to get to the binocs, but alas, he was a foot too short. But I found the comet in the 15" Obsession UC with a goodly 35mm Panoptic. And there it was. The 15 brought out the tail and brightened the nucleus. Everyone came over, and looked. Arturo thought he saw two tails, and I thought so too, so log as you consider the dimming in the center the division. It didn't have the striking division that you see in a deep photo. I switched to the 17mm Ethos eyepiece, and then it really shone. It was easy to focus on a dim star that was right next to it, 51 Pisces, so now I knew the focus. I could see dimming in the tail that made it look like two tails. The wind was picking up or else I would easily have seen the brightening and dimming of jets and changes. It was bright enough and clear enough, but the scope wagged around under the wind. Donna peered intently at it during a calm wind moment, and she saw changes in brightness and possible movement. Meanwhile others were seeing it glimpse in and out of naked-eye seeing. Now the wind was whipping us, with it getting much colder. The comet had been seen, and we'd witnessed this little miracle. Now, the cold was hitting us, even as the comet dipped below the horizon. Though Orion came out from the clouds and Jupiter beckoned, we were spent and frozen. Not even five layers could keep us warm.

Packing the scope always takes longer than you want, and it always takes longest in a cold wind. But off we went, and down through the woods. The sheltering trees now covered us as we returned to Earth. Arturo told us of his stories in Uzbekistan. Donna was happy to get warmer, and we put the scope away slowly, making sure that very part was handled with care. Each part helped us see this winged interloper, and each was valuable. 90 minutes after we saw it dip below the horizon, Donna and I shared drinks at the Piper's Kilt, our traditional after-observing location. We toasted each other, talked about the comet. We walked home hand in hand, on a glorious date. My uncle at our wedding said that a marriage is a story that tells the world what love is, that as we live together, we write our book of love. Going home, we realized that we'd just written a good chapter, thanks to an auspicious comet.



About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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