It was two in the morning when the alarm sounded, rousing the teenage boy from his sleep. It was spring, and there was a slight chill in the air. The bed was warm, and it invited him to stay, but he resisted the urge to fall back asleep — there was too much at stake.

Comet Austin
This photo is a reproduction of a photographic plate obtained at the La Silla Observatory in Chile on the evening of February 24, 1990. The reproduction has been processed to bring out details.

The occasion for waking up early was a new comet in the sky, which promised to be the first one he would be able to see through a telescope that featured a tail and not just a round coma.

The boy had developed a passion for astronomy when he was 10 years old. The first time he saw the craters of the Moon through a telescope, he was hooked for life. That Christmas, his parents encouraged his new hobby with a 60mm refractor. The telescope whetted his appetite, but he soon outgrew it. Two Christmases later, he received a 6-inch f/5 Newtonian reflector that opened a new window to the universe.

The boy put on an extra layer of clothes, glanced at his cleats in the closet, and thought about the baseball game from the previous day. In the bottom of the last inning, the opposing team had the winning run on third base with one out. On the next pitch, he had caught a shallow pop fly and threw the runner out at home plate with only a second to spare. Yet, in the next inning he had struck out. Such was life. As the boy sat in the dugout, he had looked toward the sky, thinking about the evening ahead. It was still clear, but there were a few menacing clouds on the horizon.

The previous evening, he had pre-positioned the telescope mount at his observation site on top of the hill behind his home. The thick oak-lined hill provided a perfect hide site. Now, he would only need to bring the optical tube and eyepieces to observe the comet.

The boy was blessed to have grown up among thousands of acres of rolling oak hills in northern California, which he shared with scores of animals and birds. In spring, the hills were still green from the rain (and sprinkled with golden poppies); summer had not yet transformed the hills into their iconic golden hue. The boy didn’t know that almost two decades later, he would be wearing oak leaves on his shoulders. When that time arrived, the hill was covered in million-dollar homes, and the skies were far less dark.

It was a steep but manageable climb up the hill, and he negotiated a narrow footpath toward the top. He approached the mount under the oak tree and set up the telescope. He looked out over the San Francisco Bay Area and he could see the peninsula with its gleaming lights, and closer in, the dark hills of the East Bay. Now it was time to focus his attention skyward.

The comet was between the constellations Triangulum and Andromeda. Using the star-hop method, he pointed the reflector at the red giant star Mirach (Beta Andromedae), and he looked for various asterisms to guide him to the comet. He peered through his 6x30mm finder scope. After guiding his telescope past a pair of stars south of Mirach, he moved the instrument slowly towards a stellar trio in his finder scope. And … there it was! The fuzzy splotch was obvious in the finder. Finally, the boy gazed into the telescope to see the comet.

The comet’s coma had a greenish-white tint and was oblong. But most importantly to the boy, it sported a thin, blue-white tail of ionized gas that extended at least five degrees. He inserted the higher-power eyepiece to observe the nucleus in greater detail. It was a magnificent sight to behold.

The boy tracked the comet for over an hour, with occasional diversions to the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies. Dense fog began to roll in. He carried the telescope back to the hide site. Soon, the sky was completely white. He walked down the hill with the optical tube slung over his shoulder. He paused, standing at the same spot where in 1986 his father had taken the family to see Halley’s Comet. On that night, too, fog had dictated the end of the observing session.

The boy returned home, and he climbed back into his warm bed. All of his planning and effort had paid off. Comet Austin (C/1989 X1) had revealed its tail. It was a milestone the young astronomer would never forget.

Joe Barry is a Tampa-based amateur astronomer. Reach him at [email protected].


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