It was a Tuesday, a cold and clear evening in December 1985. I had been watching the sky for months with an old pair of 7x35 binoculars in the luxurious comfort of a decaying webbed lawn chair. I was following the return of Halley’s Comet on its inbound track around the sun. It was astounding that I was seeing the very comet that had both visited the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD and marked the birth and the death of Mark Twain. It was literally a once in a lifetime event and I had a front row seat (comfortable enough but not very reliable as the webbing was shredding and I risked falling through at any given moment).
I attached my Pentax 35MM camera to a spotting scope on a tripod using liberal amounts of duct tape, shims, and paper towel tubing. I learned that using long exposures smeared the pictures as the sky kept moving past the stationary camera (the Earth-centric model). This became apparent only after I managed to get the focus correct (several rolls of film and two weeks). I was not deterred. I was also not buying a motorized astronomy tripod anytime soon.
My solution for the smearing (and lack of liquid assets) was to attach a broomstick to the tripod mount/camera combination, tape my binoculars to the broomstick and align the camera to the binoculars by aiming at a light from a tower on the horizon while adjusting the shims. I centered the comet in the field of the binoculars, opened the camera shutter, and manually kept the image as aligned as I was able (with my hand and the broomstick) for the duration of the exposure. Elegance? Not so much :-) This image was the result of my efforts. Not great, not perfectly tracked, but it was all mine and it was HALLEY’S COMET!
The news media of the day had been interviewing astronomers about the comet. At first, the astronomers were realistic (and appropriately excited) about this momentous event. They actually got to be seen on TV and maybe even got dinner or a drink out of the deal. As time passed and the news people wanted more interviews, other astronomers willingly stepped up and the comet was eventually inflated to a “curtain of light across the sky”, “reading at night”, “staggeringly stupendous world class” event status. When the exaggerated claims did not materialize, the media quit interviewing, the astronomers went back to their observatories, and the public moved on to the next story. The comet just continued steadily around the sun as it had done for all of recorded history.
What I learned from Halley’s Comet 1985/86 was that the universe is a remarkable place, I had need of better equipment, astronomers sometimes crave attention, the media will pump up any story, and the public has the attention span………... “Look, Squirrel”
Halley’s Comet - July 28, 2061; coming soon to a solar system near you!