Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard)—I

There is a new comet currently visible through telescopes, binoculars and long-exposure photographs in the morning skies—and there are expectations that the comet will become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye in the coming weeks.

Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) with M3 and two meteors at 0450 MST 03 December 2021.
Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) with M3 and two meteors at 0450 MST 03 December 2021.

Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) was discovered by G. J. Leonard at the Mount Lemmon Observatory in early January 2021. The comet will make its closest approach to Earth on 12 December 2021 (~35 million km). It will make its closest approach to the Sun on 3 January 2022 and then will head out of the Solar System.

It has a current estimated magnitude of around +6 and is expected to brighten to +4 as it nears the Sun. Some forecasts call for a brightening to magnitude +2 making it visible even in the twilight hours. It is becoming likely that this will be the brightest comet of 2021.

This was my first attempt to photograph the comet. It was barely visible in binoculars (7×50) but was easily seen with even a short exposure on the camera. I set the camera to take 60 second exposures for an hour—at which time astronomical twilight would begin to brighten the eastern sky.

The photograph at the top was taken just a few minutes after the start of the session and shows two meteors (one bright and the other fairly dim) passing through the same portion of the sky as the comet. Also visible in the photograph is Messier 3 (M3 or NGC 5272), a globular cluster made up of around a half million stars.

Photo details: Nikon D750, Nikkor 180mm ED AI-S, ƒ/2.8, ISO 1600, 60 seconds; tracking with an iOptron Sky Tracker.

Below is a time-lapse animation of the images collected during that hour. The comet is moving at an ultrafast speed of ~71 km/second relative to Earth and that fast motion is easily seen in the animation.

Time-lapse imagery showing the motion of the comet from 0450–0550 MST on 03 December 2021.

I hope to have more opportunities to photograph this comet in both the morning sky and later in the month in the evening sky—especially if it brightens significantly.

Lunar Eclipse of 18–19 November 2021

The Lunar eclipse of 18–19 November was considered a “partial eclipse” but with 97% coverage it was pretty close to a total eclipse. But not quite. That last 3% of the illuminated limb of the Moon was enough to make photography a challenge because its brightness significantly overwhelmed the dim red of the remainder of the lunar disk as well as the nearby stars.

Lunar eclipse with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.
Lunar eclipse with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.
Lunar eclipse.
Lunar eclipse.

What made this eclipse noteworthy is the proximity of the Moon to both the Pleiades (M45) and Hyades star clusters.

I used an Nikon 80–200mm telephoto zoom lens for this astrophotography session. Set to 200mm it was possible to capture (barely) both the Moon and Pleiades. Set to 80mm it was easy to capture all three objects. This legacy lens from Nikon is still a very useful astrophotography lens for me—not least because it has a hard stop at infinity making nighttime focusing simple.

Complicating the setup—and there’s always a complication—was the presence of high, thin clouds streaming across the sky. These clouds muted the brilliance of the stars but also created an illuminated area surrounding the Moon. To capture both the bright uneclipsed sliver of the Moon as well as the nebulosity in the Pleiades required shooting a variety of exposures that could be blended later. Even this was not as easy as I had hoped and I tried different methods (e.g., layers with masks; high dynamic range blending; dodging and burning, etc.) until I was finally satisfied with a good but less than stellar (get it? stellar?) image.

Here are two images. The zoomed in and highly cropped image was shot at ISO 800, ƒ/8, and 4 seconds at a focal length of 200mm. The wider field of view was shot at 80mm, ISO 800, ƒ/8, and at shutter speeds of ½, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, and 30 seconds. HDR blending was done using Lightroom 6 and then further tweaked using various tools to brighten the stars while keeping the Moon dark.

Autumn Colors — 2021

The changing of the colors of leaves continues to march from the higher to lower elevations. The higher elevations and aspens peaked in mid October while places such as Oak Creek Canyon hit their peak a few weeks later. Peak color is just now reaching Sedona and similar locations. Here are several photos of leaves taken over the past few weeks in and near Oak Creek Canyon.

Fruit trees near Cave Springs campground.
Fruit trees near Cave Springs campground.
Maples near the Harding Springs trail.
Maples near the Harding Springs trail.
AB Young trailhead.
AB Young trailhead.
Grape leaves at the AB Young trailhead.
Grape leaves at the AB Young trailhead.
AB Young trailhead.
AB Young trailhead.
Maple leaves in upper Oak Creek Canyon.
Maple leaves in upper Oak Creek Canyon.
Leaves on the water in Kelly Canyon.
Leaves on the water in Kelly Canyon.
Oak leaves in Kelly Canyon.
Oak leaves in Kelly Canyon.

Aspen Leaves and Autumn Color

The changing color of aspen leaves has peaked in many locations — and just now peaking in others. It’s always interesting to see which areas go early and which hang on until later.

Here are some photos of aspen around northern Arizona this past week.

Going, going... (Hockderffer Hills near FR151.)
Going, going… (Hockderffer Hills near FR151.)
Arizona Trail near Hart Prairie.
Arizona Trail near Hart Prairie.
Arizona Trail.
Arizona Trail.
Aspen trees with shadows.
Aspen trees with shadows.
Aspen trees at Aspen Corner on Snowbowl Road. (Notice how many trees have been scarred from folks carving their initials in the bark.)
Aspen trees at Aspen Corner on Snowbowl Road. (Notice how many trees have been scarred from folks carving their initials in the bark.)
Forest Road 151.
Forest Road 151.
A tunnel through the trees on FR 151.
A tunnel through the trees on FR 151.