I had hoped that the darker skies near San Simeon on the central California coast would have made it easier to spot Comet Lulin, but no such luck. First the clouds rolled in around sunset. I checked around 9:45 and they’d cleared enough to see very clearly out toward the ocean, but the lights of town were directly below Leo, so I drove down the highway a few miles to a scenic viewpoint with a wide parking area, stopped the car, and tried not to let passing traffic ruin my dark adaptation.

Once again, no luck spotting the comet (though I’ve at least determined that the bright spot next to Saturn was just a star), but an excellent view of the stars. And I spotted 4 or 5 meteors during the ~30 minutes I was out there, all in the direction of Orion and Canis Major. (One of them, maddeningly, flashed by just moments before one of my photos started.)

I did manage to catch an airplane as it transited in front of Canis Major and Orion, shown in this photo. (I should have called it a UFO.) And the view was far better than any night sky in suburbia, so the side trip was absolutely worth it!

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.

On Sunday, I participated in the Great World Wide Star Count. The idea is to track light pollution and get people (especially kids) stargazing. They ask you to look at either Cygnus (northern hemisphere) or Sagittarius (southern hemisphere) about an hour of two after sunset, and match what you can see against a set of charts. Each chart shows the sky with only stars at a certain magnitude or brighter. The website has activity guides in various languages.

I was actually surprised I could see more stars than I expected once I let my eyes get dark-adapted. It’s been unusually clear over the last few days, though it looks like that’s coming to an end. Of course, the magnitude 4 stars were only barely visible, and the sky never quite seems to get black here.

The event runs from October 1–15, so there’s only 4 nights left! Get out there, and take a look at the stars!

This background (which only seems to show up on the solo post page) is a clip from a photo posted as the August 12 Astronomy Picture of the Day. It’s my current desktop wallpaper on my Windows box at work. And it’s got about a zillion times as many stars as I usually get to see at night.

Back when I was a teen, I was in Boy Scouts, and we went camping almost once a month. At home, in a suburban housing tract, I could see the major constellations, and I remember once just managing to pick out the fainter stars of Orion’s head, arms and club from my bedroom window. But out in the desert, you could see thousands of stars. In summer, you could see the Milky Way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it from a city of any size. One summer camp at Lost Valley I went out into one of the meadows with a tripod and my SLR camera to try my hand at amateur astral photography. I got some pictures of Scorpio and Sagittarius, and I really should try to figure out where they ended up.

A few nights ago I stood out on our apartment balcony, looking up at the sky. I could see only a handful of stars, and one of them was Jupiter. Even knowing it was in Scorpio, I could spot maybe one or two stars. Tonight was a bit better, even with the waxing moon. I set out a blanket so I could lie down and let the sides of the balcony block out the lighting from walkways and other apartments, though it couldn’t do much for the moon or the slowly developing cloud layer.

The best view of the stars I’ve had recently was two years ago, on our trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. On the day we visited Kilauea, we drove back across the desolate lava fields of Ka‘u at night, and stopped the car by the side of the road for a few minutes just to look at the sky.

I think it’s time to go camping again. Somewhere out in the desert or mountains. Somewhere without all the haze and light we have here.

Notes on style: I used Trevor Creech’s Per-Post CSS Plugin to assign the background and appropriate foreground colors on this post. I originally tried it with inline styles on a div, which worked, but left the links illegible. Also, I’ve enhanced it using the CSS3 border-radius and box-shadow for browsers that support it. Unfortunately Gecko doesn’t trim the curved corners off the background image, so right now that’s just the Safari 3 beta and Webkit nightlies.