Joe & Rick's Comet Hale-Bopp Observing Diary

Personal observations of Comet Hale-Bopp by Joe Orman and Rick Scott:

July 5, 1996 (Joe): Rick and I got our first look at Comet Hale-Bopp on this night, from the San Bernardino Mountains of California. We used 10x50 and 7x50 binoculars. Conditions were very good (dark skies, high altitude). At that time, the comet was located in the Milky Way, in the constellation Scutum. It was a small fuzzy patch not quite visible to the naked eye. But remember, this observation was made 9 MONTHS before peak brightness -- Hale-Bopp shows promise of being a truly Great Comet!

August 1, 1996 (Joe): Saw Hale-Bopp from my back yard in the Phoenix suburbs at 10 pm. Conditions were fairly poor (intermittent high hazy clouds). Thru 10x50 binoculars, the comet was a very faint smudge when it was visible at all. It has now moved out of the Milky Way, into the constellation Serpens Cauda (the Serpent's Tail), which is about 45 degrees above the southern horizon at 10pm.

August 2, 1996 (Joe): This night was clearer, and I was able to see the comet easily thru binoculars from my back yard, but it was still pretty faint. Could not see it with the naked eye -- probably need to get far away from city lights for that. The comet's position against the background stars had moved slightly but noticeably since the night before.

August 10, 1996 (Rick): Saw the comet from my back yard. It was a very dim fuzzy ball only visible with binoculars. It was exactly where the illustration in the September Sky and Telescope article said it would be, but the constellations were difficult to recognize from the city.

August 18, 1996 (Joe): Viewing conditions were poor (bright clouds and lightning to the north), but I was able to faintly see the comet, which is now located in the constellation Ophiuchus (the Serpent-Bearer).

August 31, 1996 (Joe): Got away from the city lights, to a remote site in the National Forest southwest of Winslow, AZ. The only interference was from Jupiter, which was in the same general part of the sky. I still couldn't quite see the comet with the naked eye, but it was easily seen thru binoculars, with a short fuzzy tail.

September 25, 1996 (Joe & Rick): Observed comet on night-hike in Phoenix South Mountain Park. Full moon interfered; comet still faint.

September 26, 1996 (Rick): Observed comet from back yard during total lunar eclipse; still faint.

October 1, 2 & 3, 1996 (Joe): Observed comet from back yard. At 9:30 pm (3 hours past sunset), the comet was only about 20 degrees above the southwestern horizon ... definitely moving toward the sunset as the weeks go by. Will be lost in the evening twilight in about another month. Attempted to photograph on the 2nd (50mm, f/1.8, 37 minutes, 100 ASA). Results: light pollution from Phoenix mostly washed out the photo.

October 10, 1996 (Joe & Rick): Observed comet on night-hike in Phoenix South Mountain Park. No moon, but plenty of light pollution. Comet was seen with binoculars by several people in the group, but was still pretty faint and hard to locate.

October 24, 1996 (Joe & Rick): Observed comet on night-hike in Phoenix South Mountain Park. Full moon and hazy clouds made comet very faint.

November 1 & 3, 1996 (Joe): Made my first naked-eye observation of the comet from very dark skies in the desert of southern California. Appears as dim star to the naked eye, with short but definite tail through binoculars. Attempted to photograph with 400-speed slide film on November 3, but camera malfunctioned.

November 8, 1996 (Joe & Rick): Viewed from dark-sky site near Mobile, Arizona. Visible with naked eye. Photographed with 400-speed slide film pushed to 800 (180 & 135 mm lenses at f/2.8, 8 minute exposures). Results: 135mm okay (tail short but discernible), too much tracking error with 180mm.

November 17, 1996 (Rick): Viewed from front yard with binoculars. Getting pretty low. First quarter moon.

November 20, 1996 (Joe & Rick): Viewed from Rick's front yard with binoculars. Significant light pollution from city and moon. Comet barely visible to Joe; Rick couldn't see it at all.

December 4, 1996 (Joe): Viewed from back yard with binoculars at 6:25pm (70 minutes after sundown). Comet was very low in west, fairly difficult to see though the light pollution.

December 19, 1996 (Joe & Rick): Observed comet on night-hike in Phoenix South Mountain Park with binoculars at 6:30pm. Comet was very low in west, very difficult to see in last glow of twilight; probably our last evening sighting until mid-March 1997.

January 15, 1997 (Joe & Rick): The comet has now moved into the morning sky. Today we made our first morning sighting, after several days of overcast weather. Observed comet from our front yards at 6:30am, after start of morning twilight. About 15 degrees above the horizon straight east, in the constellation of Aquila. Not visible to naked eye, but easy through binoculars; short but distinct tail to upper left. The comet will continually get higher in the morning sky until early March; mid- to late March it will be visible both in the morning and evening skies, after which it is strictly an evening object until late April.

January 16, 1997 (Joe): Observed from front yard about 6am. Thin clouds and street lights made comet dim.

January 17, 1997 (Joe): Observed from front yard about 6am. Clear skies, but street lights still made comet dim.

January 19, 1997 (Joe & Rick): Viewed from dark-sky site near Sacaton, Arizona, between 5:15 and 6:30 am. Clear skies; comet easily visible as smudge with naked eye. Short broad tail visible with binoculars; also viewed thru telescope for the first time. Estimated magnitude at +3.5. Also viewed Mars, Mercury and Venus.

January 30, 1997 (Rick): Viewed from backyard with last quarter moon in sky. Very easy to find and see with naked eye, looked like a star. By comparison with nearby stars, estimated magnitude at +2.6. Through binoculars it had a very distinct fan-shaped tail with a bright, elongated coma.

February 7, 1997 (Joe): Viewed from front porch. Moon no longer in sky. Now looks like a fairly bright star to the naked eye, very easy to locate. Tail very distinct but still short thru binoculars; pseudonucleus a very bright point.

February 9, 1997 (Joe & Rick): Viewed from dark-sky site near Florence, Arizona. Comet first visible at 4:35 am. Tail easily seen through binoculars, at least 3 degrees long. Rick estimated magnitude at +2.5 to +2.3. Photographed with new adjustable-frequency star-tracker, 1600-speed film. Results: Good! Long blue ion tail visible in photos.

February 14, 1997 (Joe): Viewed comet from INSIDE house! At 5:15 am, was able to see comet even thru tinted window above front door (which faces north-east). From front porch, tail becoming noticibly brighter and longer -- can now see tail faintly with naked eye.

February 18, 1997 (Joe): Viewed comet from front porch at 5:45 am. Can now definitely see a tail with naked eye, even with light pollution from city. This is about the highest it will get in the morning sky. The moon will start to interfere after tomorrow (almost full), and will be in the morning sky until about March 7th (the same time we start looking for the comet in the evening sky).

February 22-25, 1997 (Joe): Viewed from front porch each morning, comet getting noticibly brighter and tail more distinct.

March 4, 1997 (Joe): Viewed from front porch at 5:45am -- now looks very obviously "comet-like" to naked eye.

March 7, 1997 (Rick): Made first evening sighting, 7:15pm from Echo Canyon (entance to Camelback Mountain in Phoenix).

March 8-9, 1997 (Joe & Rick): Viewed from dark-sky site near Florence, Arizona. Comet briefly visible in evening, and for 2 hours in morning. Viewed with naked eye, binoculars, and 8-inch telescope. Tail at least 6 degrees long. Rick and Joe both photographed the comet in the morning with Ektachrome P1600 film. Joe used his adjustable-frequency oscillator and Synchron motor for the first time, with Rick's old plexiglass star-tracker. Results: excellent!

March 10 & 11, 1997 (Joe): Viewed in evening from local park. Easily visible in binoculars from 7:15 to 7:30 pm above the northwestern horizon, faintly visible to naked eye. Dust tail is most visible, and actually points horizontally or slightly down toward the horizon.

March 17-18, 1997 (Joe): Comet is now plainly visible with tail in both evening and morning skies. Viewed over next-door neighbor's house in evening, over neighbor's house across street 4:00 to 4:30 in morning. Getting noticibly higher in evening, lower in morning. Within 2 weeks it will not be visible at all in the morning, but will be at its highest and brightest in the evening sky.

March 21, 1997 (Joe): Took several photos of comet over house and back yard in evening with 50mm lens on fixed tripod. Thin hazy clouds.

March 23, 1997 (Joe & Rick): 8 days before perihelion. Traveled to dark-sky site near Lake Pleasant to photograph comet with Ektachrome P1600 slide film. Joe took photos of comet with desert foreground (lit by full moon) with 50mm lens on fixed tripod -- results were excellent (except for a lot of planes). Rick used tracker with his new motor to photograph the comet & Andromeda galaxy with telephoto lenses -- results were pretty washed out due to light pollution from the moon. Rick also photographed partial lunar eclipse, Mars & Orion with telephoto lenses.

March 25, 1997 (Joe): Viewed comet over skyline of Phoenix from South Mountain Park. Even looking directly over the light-polluted heart of Phoenix, the comet was very bright with a distinct tail easily visible to the naked eye.

March 29, 1997 (Joe & Rick): 2 days before perihelion. Traveled to dark-sky site near Salome to photograph comet with Ektachrome P1600 slide film. Joe used his new equatorial-mount tracker for the first time. Results: Joe had streaking on a few of his -- apparently due to a slipping ball head or set screw -- but most came out very good (also a lot of planes!). Rick had streaking on most pictures -- apparently due to misalignment with the pole.

March 31, 1997 (Joe): Night of perihelion. Photographed with Kodak PPF400 print film from front & back yards. Results: Foreground & sky is so light, it is hard to see the comet in the photos.

April 4 & 5, 1997 (Joe & Rick): For our "Big Finale" comet-shooting session, travelled to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Comet was quite impressive, even with horizon glow from LA area. Photographed comet both nights, with PPF400 print film on fixed tripod, and Ektachrome P1600 slide film on tracker. Photos came out pretty good (still more planes!).

April 13, 1997 (Joe): Comet is still easily visible over house in evening. One has to start looking later (about 7:40pm) because sunset is getting later.

April 25, 1997 (Joe): Viewed comet in twilight above hill at Chiricahua National Monument.

April 28, 1997 (Joe): Viewed comet from back yard. Getting lower and farther toward the west. Tail more vertical now.

May 3-6, 1997 (Joe & Rick): Viewed comet from Rick's front yard at 8:30pm. Even over the span of a couple days the comet was noticibly lower. Also observed through binoculars from back yard -- tail is completely vertical and dimmer. By last week of May will disappear into the evening twilight.

May 8, 1997 (Joe): Made one last trip to dark skies to photograph the comet, near Mobile, Arizona. A thin crescent moon made a beautiful companion for the comet. Below them was a band of clouds, which the moon, and then the comet, disappeared into about 9pm. After viewing Comet Hale-Bopp dozens of times over the last 10 months, I sadly bid it farewell; this is the last time I will see it unless I try to find it when it peeks above the horizon in October.

September 13, 1997 (Joe & Rick): We were able to see Comet Hale-Bopp from Queen Creek, AZ, this morning. The comet was visible for only about 25 minutes, in the constellation Puppis, after it rose above the SE horizon before we lost it in morning twilight. We did not estimate the comet's magnitude, but it was barely visible through 10x50 binoculars, and was a faint fuzzy patch through 4" and 6" telescopes. The viewing will improve slightly over the next few weeks, until early November when the comet will disappear for the last time below the southern horizon. The best weekends for viewing will be October 4-5 and October 11-12; mornings will be moonless, and the comet will be about 11 degrees above the SSE horizon one hour before sunrise.

October 4, 1997 (Joe & Rick): At the All-Arizona Star Party near Arizona City, AZ, we got to look at Comet Hale-Bopp through the telescope that Thomas Bopp used to discover it! Tom Bopp wasn't there himself, but Jim Stevens was there with his home-made 17.5" Newtonian (As the story goes, on July 23, 1995 Stevens pointed his telescope at a star cluster in Sagittarius, then stepped aside to let Bopp have a look. Since the telescope has no tracker, the cluster had drifted out of view, but Bopp noticed a different fuzzy object -- therefore becoming world-famous while Stevens got no credit). Through this large telescope with 2-inch eyepieces, the comet appeared as an easily-visible object with a very broad fan-shaped tail. This will probably be the last time we see Hale-Bopp -- what a comet adventure this has been!

February 24, 1998 (Rick): I went on a Caribbean cruise to see the total solar eclipse that occurred on 26 Feb 1998. This gave me an opportunity to find Hale-Bopp one last time. I was on the Dawn Princess and Captain Bernie Warner was very accomodating to the large number of astronomer types on board by having all of the lights on the front of the ship turned off at night. This was great as I was able to enjoy many southern sky objects I can't see from Phoenix, AZ. The night of the 24th, I went out early enough to locate and barely see the comet. It was not a very good sighting, but I was able to tell for a few moment that the comet was actually out there. Since I was on a moving ship, I didn't use a telescope, but a pair of Celestron Ultima 9X63 binoculars. This will most certainly be my last sighting of this great comet and I'm looking foward to the next one that comes our way.

Updated: 20 March 1998


Revised: April 12, 1999
Copyright © 1999 Joe Orman and Rick Scott
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