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Published:  2015-01-13 Views:  854
Author:  WAAIGRAS
Published in:  BushTalk/VeldTalk
VeldTalk Article: Catching A Comet

From a VeldTalk article by Helen Duigan

helen.duigan@veldtalk.co.za

Catching a comet

 

Allen Versfeld of Hennops River was sitting in the pitch dark outside his house with a telescope and a camera on October 19.  As an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer, he was waiting to get a pic of a glowing comet flying past Mars at about 200 000 kph, its core of ice and dust barely missing the Red Planet and the costly scientific spacecraft circling the planet.

How did he get involved with this venture?  “An astronomer from the Space Science Institute in the United States was running a project to combine the pictures taken by amateurs with the data that professional observatories record,” explained Allen.  “Big telescopes (like the Hubble) are very expensive to run and professional astronomers get stingy time allocations.  Amateurs can use their telescopes whenever they like, so we can fill in the gaps!”

Allen captured pictures of the comet, called Siding Spring, on camera as it shot past Mars.  "To be part of that was very exciting.  It was an extremely rare thing to see!" he exclaimed.  Catching Siding Spring was a feat, considering that Mars is roughly 56 million kilometers from Earth at its closest!  For the keen photographers out there - Allen’s camera was an unmodified Canon EOE 1100d with his telescope serving as a1260mm lens at f/6.3.  

Comet near Mars

“The space Science Institute was especially interested in South Africans because we were at the right place to see everything at the moment of closest approach,” said Allen.  “Americans and Europeans were too far north, the Australians missed it because both Mars and the comet were below their horizon at the time while the South Americans were still in broad daylight.”

There were only two South Africans going for serious observations - Allen and Kos Coronaios from Louis Trichardt. See Allen’s website:  http://www.urban-astronomer.com.


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