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Contemplating Comet Halley
By Greg Bryant


My first article, published in Universe, June 1988
 


While skimming through the July, 1987 edition of "Sky and Telescope", I came across a small article explaining how Comet Halley was still visible in large amateur telescopes in April of last year.  As I read this, it revived pleasant memories of my observations in late 1985 and early 1986.  What follows is some of the highlights of that time.

My first view of Comet Halley was on December 15. 1985.  I had persuaded my family to drive up to Bowen Mountain to search for the comet.  By the time that we had arrived, the skies had clouded over. but I was determined to remain until such time that I had either observed the comet or it had set.  I set up my 6 inch Newtonian reflector, and began the wait.  During this time, I met a member of the ASNSW (his name escapes me) who had a smaller telescope.  Just before the clouds cleared.  Ken Wallace arrived on the scene.

With substantial gaps appearing in the clouds, we commenced a search for Comet Halley.  Initially, we had problems as the comet was not visible with the naked eye.  While scanning the western sky, I came across a bright "nebula", but I didn't recognise it as a comet.  Then behind me came a cry that the comet had been found. I raced over to the smaller telescope, looked through the eyepiece, and realised I had glimpsed it only moments before in my telescope. I had seen Halley's Comet!

It wasn't until March 9, 1986, that I observed the comet again.  My father had a friend who knew some people living on a property near Molong, on the other side of Orange.  We left on the Saturday night, just before midnight, and arrived at the property at 3.30a.m. on Sunday.  As this was my first view of the Milky Way in the countryside, I couldn't believe how bright the stars were. I set up the telescope and began to observe the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius.  Then I looked at my watch and realised that the comet should be nearly visible.  I turned towards the eastern horizon and saw the comet suspended just above the paddocks.  That first naked eve view of a comet I will never forget.

We observed the comet with its long tail until well after the Moon had popped up.  It was only then that I realised that it was cold, so we went inside the farmhouse for some really early morning tea.  After thanking the owners for their hospitality, we stepped outside.  Although the first glimmer of light had appeared in the east, Halley's Comet was still quite visible.  As we drove back to Sydney, Jupiter was shining quite brightly in the dawn sky.

I observed Halley's Comet on numerous occasions during the next 7 weeks.  One special occasion was at the beginning of April.  The Senior Master at my high school spoke to me in the middle of an English class.  It turned out that he was a member of the local Rotary Club.  He informed me that a group of Japanese tourists were coming to Sydney as part of a Rotary tour, and they had asked Rotary if arrangements could be made to observe Halley's Comet.  The President of the Rotary Club asked my Senior Master as to whether he knew anyone with an interest in Astronomy.  The Senior Master came straight to me. Naturally,  I gratefully accepted the request.

April 3 turned out to be too cloudy, but I did show Alpha Centauri to the tourists.  The following night was clear, and after having dinner with the tourists, during which I learnt the art of using Chopsticks, we drove off to South Head near the Lighthouse (a good example of light pollution). I set up the telescope and immediately focused it on the comet, which was visible to the naked eye as a hazy patch in Scorpius. Nearly an hour was spent pointing out the comet to each tourist, and afterwards, I showed the rings of Saturn to those who were interested.  Finally, the tourists thanked my family for the opportunity and they departed. I was about to unpack the telescope when I realised that a number of Sydneysiders were congregating around me.  Another hour was spent pointing out the comet.  During this time, I felt that I would like to do this type of thing for ever, as I was introducing new people to the wonders of the Universe.  Unfortunately, it did begin to get quite late, and so I regretfully had to leave.

Travelling home in the car, I wished that more opportunities would arise to show the general public the night sky.  Maybe what we need is a really bright comet, discovered months in advance, in conjunction with an information campaign conducted by the media and amateur organisations such as ours.

My final view of Halley's Comet was on the night of April 24, 1986, during the Total Lunar Eclipse. Upon arrival at Mt.  Banks, the telescope was set up and I briefly looked at the darkening Moon.  My parents then asked me to point out the comet.  It was only then that I realised that I didn't have a clue as to where the comet was in the sky.  As I scanned through Scorpius and Centaurus, where the comet had already been, I began to panic.  Leaving the telescope, I was about to search for my reference books when I casually looked up in the sky .... and immediately saw a faint comet with a long tail on the border of Hydra and Crater. I had found the comet.  We observed the comet and some deep sky objects until the Moon began to brighten again.  My last view of Halley's Comet was made at 11.40p.m. as I stepped into the car.  That last look gave me the same awe and wonder that generations before must have experienced. It was there and then that I made a silent vow to see Comet Halley again on its next visit.  With perihelion predicted to occur, on July 28, 2061, I will have just turned 91 years old .....

Copyright Greg Bryant.  All Rights Reserved.