Great comet caper of 2005

setting up telescope

Present at the not-so-big bang

My friends and I went up to Joshua Tree National Park last night to watch as NASA's Deep Impact mission played chicken with the Tempel 1 comet. We knew it would be dark in the park, and we wanted the best chance of seeing something — anything — with as little interference from light pollution as possible.

We piled into Ken's SUV with all the paraphernalia needed for a successful celestial adventure: telescope, binoculars, chairs, sweaters, blankets, and several bottles of champagne, wine, and other suitable beverages. In Yucca Valley we stopped at KFC to pick up take-out chicken, taking advantage of coupons from the Sunday paper, being on fixed incomes and all.

There had been a lot of loose talk at brunch about the likelihood of encountering marauding sidewinders and whether long pants, sturdy boots, and snake-bite kits would be in order. Opting for comfort over caution, I wore shorts as did — surprise! — worrywart-in-chief, Ken.

staking out our viewing location
Establishing our base camp on Geology Tour road

Sunset and the ensuing light show were fantastic. The sky shifted through amazing shades of blue and red both to the west and the east. And when the stars and planets started to pop out, it was awesome. Just after sunset we had a great view of Mars and Mercury above the western horizon, and when it got darker the Milky Way was clearly visible.

What became truly amazing, though, was the large number of satellites we spied as they crossed above going every which direction — east, west, north, south and every bearing in between. At a lower altitude, there was a steady stream of planes heading into Los Angeles area airports, plus an occasional military jet (we presume) from Twentynine Palms, just north of the park.

We were all also surprised by how much light came up from the Coachella Valley some 4000 feet below. The desert cities don't have a lot of street lights, but the mountain ridge was noticeably backlit.

sky chart

Oh, yeah! I almost forgot — the comet! We looked and looked and looked for it. Apparently someone forgot the light-pen to mark the X. Ken thinks he saw a flash through his binoculars just at impact time, but it's unclear if this was the collision or simply a floater crossing his field of vision. After you stare at a certain spot long enough, you can make yourself believe you see almost anything.

For pictures of the comet, do what sensible people the world over are doing: go to www.nasa.gov. For a few pictures of the great comet-watching caper of 2005, go to the slideshow (sidebar).

And Happy Fourth of July!