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Stellafane Comets

Although we failed again this year to have a sparklingly clear Saturday evening as a culmination to our annual meeting, those of us who arrived Friday did enjoy rather good skies during the pre-midnight hours on Friday. This came as a welcome surprise since much of Friday had been partly cloudy, at best, and the forecast had generally been a bit grim.

As twilight waned, far and away the most anticipated object for observation was Comet LINEAR, C/1999 S4, situated very low in the western sky not far from the tail-star of Leo. Just days earlier it had been reported that the comet, which had been verging on naked eye visibility, was apparently beginning to disintegrate and fade away!

In the gathering darkness I could see Denebola twinkling against the fading colors of evening. Around me I could here the hushed question passed from one observer to the next, "Have you got it in the scope yet?" "It" was the comet and my binoculars sufficed to show it as only a pale specter of what it had been just days before. The comet seemed to have become all tail, the position formerly occupied by the comet's head being little more that a vague brightening at the sunward end of a fairly strong, slightly curving dust tail about a degree in length.

Before long the low, silhouetted tree line of the western hills began slowly to impinge on the binoculars' field of view. The sight of this oddly muted comet against the skies of Stellafane brought back to me a flood of memories of other such objects that had been viewed from the crest of Breezy Hill in years now long gone by. Some of these I had personally seen, while others lived on only as stories from a distant past.

There was that magnificent visitor Comet Hale-Bopp, the only major comet to be observed at two consecutive Stellafanes. It's discovery in 1995 had come just days before the convention and many had gotten their first views of the object the Friday evening preceding the meeting. Some observers weren't at first overly impressed...until they realized the comet was yet nearly two years from its encounter with the Sun! At the 1996 convention Comet Hale-Bopp was looked upon with much greater reverence as it verged on naked eye visibility when still the better portion of a year from perihelion passage. These feelings would turn to awe when the comet finally rounded the Sun that following spring.

There was the recollection that at our 1990 conclave David Levy had provided us with a special treat. The comet he had discovered several months earlier was just then becoming visible to the unaided eye as we gathered at Stellafane. As he spoke to the crowd during that evening's Twilight Talks, one could glance eastward and catch sight of his comet rising with the stars of Pegasus - a unique situation to say the least! My notes from that night indicated the comet was of 6th magnitude and, with binoculars, sported a tail not quite a degree long.

Likewise called to mind was that feeble little object glimpsed at Stellafane 1985. Without a doubt it received the greatest notoriety of any comet in our lifetime and how appropriate that it should have been tied to Stellafane. Although it required John Vogt's huge 24-inch Dobsonian to turn the trick, sighting P/Halley was the talk of the convention and word of our sightings was carried in the next morning's New York Times. I remember that much was made of the fact that for a brief, shining moment, Stellafane could claim to have in attendance three quarters of all the people in the world who had so far seen the comet during its current apparition!

Anyone who follows the comings and goings of comets is quick to appreciate that it is rare to have the culmination of a naked eye comet's display correspond with a Stellafane weekend. But that's exactly what happened back in 1975. I can still vividly recall viewing Comet Kobayashi-Berger-Milon (Dennis Milon was a frequent attendee of the conventions back then) from the telescope field in front of the Pink Clubhouse. As luck would have it, the evenings of both August 8th and 9th proved to be brilliantly clear. As twilight deepened one could see that below the bright stars of the Big Dipper there stood a strange 4th magnitude interloper; a glowing ball of bluish-green light fully a third the size of the full moon, from which sprouted a 5 degree tail! It was by far the most spectacular of the Stellafane comets in my 38 conventions.

The 1964 convention also took a special place in Stellafane history. Then Connecticut resident Edgar Everhart, a regular at Stellafane meetings in those days, discovered a comet just three nights before our gathering. In those days most of us heard about new comets through the Harvard Announcement Cards, which were sent by snail mail. So it was that Edgar was able to issue the first public announcement of his discovery before those gathered under the big tent Saturday afternoon! The evening being a fine, clear one, we all had a good view of the new telescopic comet.

And then there was the story of the "brightest comet never seen at a Stellafane convention". On the morning of August 2, 1957, Antonin Mrkos discovered a brilliant comet in the morning twilight. Shining with the light of a 1st magnitude star and trailing a tail some 5 to 10 degrees in length, it was one of the most splendid comets of the 20th century. Less than 24 hours later the Stellafane convention convened and the extraordinary potential existed for multiple independent discoveries by observers atop Breezy Hill if only....if only it hadn't rained!

My reverie brought to mind one final impressive object, yet one that is likely to be recalled by very few amateur astronomers today. It dates from a time when Stellafane was still in its infancy, with attendance limited to perhaps a couple of dozen telescope makers. It was the summer of 1936 and it produced the best comet Stellafaner's ever saw.

The newcomer had been found by the great Leslie Peltier, out in Ohio during mid May, and had been brightening steadily ever since. The sight it presented on August 8th, the day of the convention, was one not soon to be forgotten. The comet rose in the southeast just after full darkness fell. Slowly gaining in altitude, by midnight it stood due south about 10 or 15 degrees above the horizon. The comet's softly glowing 3rd magnitude head was near half the apparent diameter of the full moon and its broad 5 degree tail pointed straight up into the heavens. In a pristine sky, completely unfettered by any man-made lighting, it must have been a stirring sight indeed for those at that long ago convention.

I had one last glimpse of Comet LINEAR through the branches of a distant tree along the western ridge, and then it was gone. Those around me had already turned their telescopes to other objects, their interests having switched from comets to a multitude of other targets. But as for me, I was absorbed in thoughts of what other strange and interesting comets future Stellafanes might bring forth.

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