After a failed attempt yesterday, I was even more determined to try to spot comet Pan-STARRS tonight when it would appear near the moon. Naturally, the morning was fogged in, and the fog bank remained on the western horizon all day. I looked on Google Earth for a nearby hill with a western view and public access, and I found Fred Hesse, Jr. Park in Rancho Palos Verdes.

I arrived just minutes before sunset, and found thirty or so people lined up along the western edge of the hill with telescopes, binoculars, and cameras on tripods. It reminded me a lot of the eclipse I watched last May (also in Palos Verdes, though at a different park).

Hesse Park has a clear view to the west and southwest, with open space below, then houses, then the tops of the clouds. (I’m not sure what’s usually visible below the cloud layer). Off to the southwest you can see the northwestern section of Catalina Island. To the north you can see Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. Way off to the northwest you can see some of the channel islands.

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I figured I’d try spotting Comet Lulin from my back yard. I found Leo and Saturn easily enough, but just couldn’t see anything that looked like a comet. It should be a little to the right of Saturn, going by Sky & Telescope’s chart.

Too much light pollution, I guess. And unlike the Bad Astronomer, I didn’t have any binoculars to try a closer look.

On the plus side, I did spot a meteor out of the corner of my eye, off to the left of this field.

Figuring the camera might pick up something I missed, I took a few long exposure shots, running 15 seconds with the equivalent of ISO 1600. There’s a dot next to Saturn, but I’m not sure if it’s the comet or a star.

I’ll have to try again in San Simeon. Light should be much less of a problem, though clouds might be an issue.

Well, I tried again at lunch to see if I could spot Comet McNaughton during the day, just in case it was still bright enough. No luck, but I set my camera on max zoom and took a set of pictures in roughly the right area, just to see if I could spot something.

And, well, I did. I’m just not sure what. This was 1:28 pm (33.66 N, 117.75 W), looking roughly southwest, with the sun placed behind a wall to the right. The sun is to the right and above the frame. I don’t have a good sense of distance in the sky, but this is in the right direction to be either Venus or the comet.

Or it could be a passing high-altitude airplane that I didn’t notice.

If it is the comet, the tail is completely invisible, as it should be stretching down to the lower left (away from the sun) and I can’t make anything like that appear with any of the image enhancement tools I’ve tried.

Small bright object in the daytime sky.

This is unprocessed. All I did was load it from the camera and crop it. And here’s a copy of the whole photo (this was at full ~3x zoom on a Canon PowerShot SD600) with the position of the object and the rough position of the sun pointed out.

Position of the unidentified object

The skies were surprisingly clear today. Four of us at work walked outside after sunset to a bridge near the office, and saw Comet McNaught. It was visible from ~5:10/5:15 to 5:28, at which point it slipped below the line of hills to the west.

We saw it against the red sky, slowly dropping through the (fortunately sparse) clouds. It was easily visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy white spot, with a hint of a tail pointing straight up that was a lot clearer in binoculars. The tail looked like a U or a V, fanning out at what looked like (but probably wasn’t) a 45° angle.

Well, my fingers are finally warming up. (I made the mistake of not grabbing my jacket, and went out just in my sweater.) Time to wrap stuff up.

Update January 13: I managed to catch another glimpse of it tonight. Unfortunately I was just arriving at the shop to pick up my car, and it was just closing, so I didn’t have a chance to watch it set (or see much more than a fuzzy white dot.) My watch said 5:02. By the time I got out, it had set beneath the building across the street, and there just wasn’t anywhere nearby enough with a clearer view of the western horizon.

On the plus side, I did manage to spot Venus while the sky was still light, and get a picture. It’s not quite as exciting as spotting it at one in the afternoon, but by adding more blue, you get an idea of what that looked like:
Venus in a light sky: actual on the left, colorized on the right

Update January 14:

I was looking over the photos I took last night (Saturday) and discovered I could actually find it by messing around with levels. On the left is the original photo, with a little bit of color correction to match what the sky looked like. The background’s still too bright to see the comet, though it was visible to the eye. On the right, I’ve adjusted the heck out of the image, and there’s a very slight bright spot right where it should be (I framed the shot so that the comet would be near the light pole, making it easier to find). Actually, now that I look at it again, it’s just barely visible in the less-processed photo on the left.
Comet McNaught - original photo on the left, processed on the right.

Also, this is cool: the comet has gotten bright enough to be spotted in daylight. (via Slashdot) I didn’t have any luck looking for it this afternoon, but I chalk that up to lower altitude and city haze.

Update January 15: I spotted something today, but I’m not sure what…