Comet Neowise and Venus

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Welcome to!

offering local "hands-on" observing
(visual and imaging) sessions and instruction
viewing and imaging from Rabbit Valley Observatory
a dark sky location on the mesa just west of Taos, NM

Additional Final Update -- July 28, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

I sought out and viewed the comet last night about 10 P.M. local MDT, only with binocs and with difficulty. It is clearly much dimmer and displayed much less tail; further, the bright quarter Moon brightened up the sky considerably. I think that will be the last I see of this spectacular comet.

On another note, in one of my previous logs I mention the difficulty of getting a clean astrophotograph of the comet without a Starlink satellite streak. Linked here is some additional detail.

NEOWISE and satellites

I saw these satellites moving through (shown on the above time exposure and as explained in the linked article), as well as the ISS streak ~90 degrees to the Starlink satellites. This issue, I conclude, is a real problem with large consequences.

Yes, the photographs presented here are "merely" from hobbyists, but professional astronomers doing "real" research have been bombarded with such outrages as well. And, at this point in time, only a small percentage of such satellites have been put into orbit.

Final Update -- July 23-27, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

Last Thursday, July 23, I am excited to report that the local newspaper published two of my Comet NEOWISE photos, along with an article containing some of my observing notes. Please access the article by clicking this text.

In the last week, after the spectacular viewing of the night of July 20, it has been very cloudy and rainy (rare for here!) and so I have concluded that, given the weather pattern and the encroachment of an ever-expanding moon phase, we are likely not to see the comet again.

But why have so many people been unable to see the comet at all, even though seasoned observers have not had a problem; especially considering that this comet is considered to be the brightest and most observable since Comet Hale-Bopp. This article on the ever-increasing specter of light pollution, linked by clicking on the image below, may clear that up. Here's the salient point:

"Comet NEOWISE has turned out to be the most photogenic since Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, but if you’re having trouble finding it with your naked eyes, you’re not alone.

No matter how many star-charts you consult, finding this icy visitor from the outer Solar System is not as easy as it should be. 

Is it your eyes? Is it you not knowing exactly where to look? 

No -- it’s light pollution where you live, which is likely increasing each year. 

That makes the once-in-a-decade appearance of a bright comet a big moment; it could be your first, and possibly your last, chance to see a comet with the unaided eye."


Update -- July 20/21, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

Updated "final" (nothing is ever final) images of Comet NEOWISE, linked here.



First clear sky since 7/12/20; went up on the mesa, set up white iOptron SkyGuider Tracking EQ mount, reviewed polar alignment instructions (using cell ‘phone’s GPS to determine Polaris’ location on the polar finder’s reticle) and waited. I had determined that an 85mm lens (mounted on the ball head) would be just about right, given the recent photographs published on the web, and considering a rough estimate of the size of the comet’s tail. I focused to infinity — always required for astrophotography and slightly to the right of this lens’ preset mark — on a distant airport light, and waited. Although waiting for nightfall and a glimpse of the comet was a very calming exercise, nevertheless as it got darker, a huge cloud started to obstruct the northern sky. So, after much planning and waiting, I finally gave up, about 21:30 MDT and drove the short distance home (5 minutes).

Upon arriving back home, those clouds had already started clearing out, so I unloaded and viewed with the Pentax XCF 12X50 binocs (FOV is 5.6 degrees). And, perhaps about 22:00 MDT it did clear up, and the beautiful Comet NEOWISE was fully exposed. Visually, you could just make out the comet’s ion tail as well as a very obvious, even with the naked eye, its dust tail. Estimated (difficult for such an extended object) magnitude was 1.5. After 20 minutes or so of viewing, the sky remained clear; so I decided to take a few non-guided “snapshots” of the comet. I put the ball head on the regular tripod and composed the pics, best one as pictured here. I set the exposure time for 8 seconds (500 rule suggests 4 seconds to avoid star streaking with this config), guessing (slightly incorrectly) that any longer would show too many star trails on an unguided platform. To compensate, I set the ISO at a noisy 6400, and shot one stop down at f/2.8. As the comet started to set, clouds also reappeared, but frankly I think I was lucky to see and photograph it at all! One additional notation — there was a constant barrage of satellites “flowing” through the field of view, essentially ruining many of my photographs. Some observers and photographers have previously noted that “they” were the ISS, but there were quite a few, suggesting the new barrage of communications satellites recently put into orbit.

Concluding, visually the comet was at least 6 degrees long, ion tail barely visible to the naked eye, yellow/whitish dust tail obvious, long, and spread out.

Specific data below:

Comet NEOWISE below pointer stars of the Big Dipper, taken on a fixed tripod from our back “yard.” (Nikon 5100, Nikon 85mm f/2 lens, F/2.8, ISO 6400, 8 seconds, 22:24 MDT, 07/20/2020)

Updated "final" (nothing is ever final) images of Comet NEOWISE, linked here.

Update -- July 13, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

Cloudy this morning, so I updated this website to include my "final" (nothing is ever final) images of Comet NEOWISE, linked here.

Update -- July 12, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

Mountain horizon generally clear, comet rising to the left (north) of previous location and clearing the local mountains between 4:15 and 4:20 MDT. My 10X50 binoculars have a field of view of 7 degrees. The comet extends over at least 1/2 of the FOV, or 3.5 degrees in length. I would say that the length is a bit more than that, perhaps then 4 to 4 1/2 degrees long. The head is still quite tight, star-like and bright (as Capella in Auriga), the tail relatively unchanged other than its rotational pivot away from the sun.

Update -- July 11, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

A little after 4:00 this morning the comet cleared the mountain ridge skyline as seen in the previous adjacent photographs. The sky was hazy and a bit cloudy (for here) so I decided to not attempt any photographs. I did notice that the comet's tail was starting to "tip" a bit northward, an indication of it turning as it pivots around the sun. It will appear in the evening sky in a little over a week. It was easily visible to the naked eye. As to nomenclature, the comet's name, technically C/2020 F3 NEOWISE comes from its discoverer -- the satellite NearEarthObjectWide-fieldInfraredSurveyExplorer -- C indicates a comet, 2020 the year of discovery, and F3 indicates that it was discovered the second week of March. I prefer the "old" comets -- the ones that carry the human discoverer's name(s) like Halley and Hale-Bopp, or Comet Hyakutake, named after its intrepid and patient Japanese discoverer Yuji Hyakutake, who has discovered several comets.

Update -- July 10, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

As you can likely surmise by noting this website's new logo image above, I was able to solve the focus problems (employing a different manual-focus lens -- the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 ED, using LiveView on the Nikon 5100 to focus carefully on Venus and the Hyades star field, and stopping down the lens a bit) -- the excellent results are below . . .

Comet Neowise

Comet Neowise close-up

Data on the above photographs -- top image -- Comet NEOWISE, Auriga rising just above comet, Venus in the Hyades to the right, Pleiades above. Foreground is west of Taos, NM on the mesa, large double mountain is Taos Mountain, the sacred mountain of the Pueblo people. More distant pointed Wheeler Peak (tallest in NM) to the left of Taos Mountain. The close-up vertical shot is merely a crop of the horizontal image, first-magnitude star Capella in Auriga top right in the pic. Taken on a fixed tripod from our front porch. (F/4, ISO 3200, 15 seconds, 04:35 MDT, 07/10/2020)

Update -- July 9, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

After viewing the comet for two straight days, I felt it was time to image it. I dutifully looked at star charts and decided that the best and most artistic framing would be to include the local mountains and the adjacent lovely star field. I awoke at 04:00 MDT and set up just outside our front door. I employed a manual-focus wide-angle fast Samyang 16mm f/2 lens on the Nikon 5100. I didn't get the focus quite right (no auto-focus here -- it must be manually focused, difficult in the dark), although I'm relatively happy with the result. Tomorrow morning I'll attempt to improve my efforts, which might allow me to enlarge and crop the resultant photo. I do very much like the resultant field-of-view.


Data on the above photograph -- Comet NEOWISE, Auriga rising just above, Venus in the Hyades, Pleiades above. Foreground is west of Taos, NM on the mesa, large double mountain is Taos Mountain, the sacred mountain of the Pueblo people. More distant pointed Wheeler Peak (tallest in NM) to the left of Taos Mountain. Taken from our front porch. (F/2, ISO 1600, 4 seconds, 04:28 MDT, 07/09/2020)

Update -- July 7, 2020 -- Comet NEOWISE

This morning, about 04:45 MDT, my wife Cheryl spotted this comet above Wheeler Peak, east and slightly north of our location just west of Taos, NM. We both viewed it through 10X50 binocs -- it took up about 1/4 of the FOV (Field of View), and Cheryl DID see it with the unaided eye as well. It was perhaps first magnitude, although since the sky was starting to brighten, this was difficult to judge. Below I will link to an informational website, as this comet promises to get brighter, especially as it moves to the evening sky later in July. But for now, try locating it in the northeast sky before dawn. Beautiful!

Below is a photo taken on the morning of July 5, 2020 from Lebanon © Maroun Habib -- this image very similar to our view through binoculars.


. . . and a shot from the Mojave Desert in California, © Daniel S. Perry, July 7, 2020, 05:27 PDT.

Update -- July 4, 2020

I have returned from a (rather annual) San Juan River float trip; seven days and six nights through the remote Goosenecks in southwestern Utah -- immersed deep in a canyon adjacent to Monument Valley. Astronomical reports include (often) waking up in the middle of the night to a magnificent, star and Milky Way-studded dark night sky. (I sleep under the stars as long as the weather is OK. Nights were very warm.) One night I awoke and remarkably viewed a brighter-than-first-magnitude object "streak" (more like "creep") slowly across the entire sky! Originally I thought it to be a very amazing meteor (albeit too slow and too long, I felt), but, after returning I learned that it was very likely an asteroid, per the below-linked article.

The movie shown on the news clip seemed to reveal an object much like what I saw, plus it was the correct date.

An event like this just proves once again that the simple act of sleeping out under a dark sky can result in some momentous sightings!


Humor update -- May 1, 2020

There's a community very near where I once lived in Colorado, west of Denver in the foothills. They offer humor (generally puns) on their billboard, and recently there was one of an astronomical theme.

humor Orion's belt


Observing schedule for Spring 2020

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, no visitation to Rabbit Valley observatory is possible for now. But, as astrophotography is the ultimate "social-distancing" activity, I'll be configuring cameras and equipment and taking some photos, I'm sure. I hope to catch the latest comet. You can too! Read about Comet Atlas here!

Update -- The Yellowstone class was great, including the intense white-knuckle driving experience out to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch under heavy, heavy snow and white-out conditions. With newly-acquired knowledge and photographs, I was able to finish and have developed a simple website to present my new wildlife photo/observational guide book entitled Yellowstone's Megafauna -- In the Wild. Click the text above to access and read the book. If you wish a signed hard-copy, e-mail me at

Observing schedule for early 2020

I will be visiting Yellowstone National Park in early to mid-February for a seminar "The Intelligence of Animals," by George Bumann, M.S. I have attended many Yellowstone Forever seminars over the years -- all are highly recommended! After that, the "warmer" spring observing session is upon us. Please e-mail me at to schedule a night under the stars!

Recent Rabbit Valley Observatory news -- early November 2019

High Country News has released the winners of their annual western night sky photo competition, and one of our photographs was a favorite! Thanks, HCN! Click on the link below and click on photograph #10!

"What shows up when the sun goes down?"

And certainly while visiting the link check out their great reader-supported journalism as well.

Observing Schedule -- Update -- late October 2019

After an activity-filled summer and early fall as noted below, Rabbit Valley Observatory is now back in full swing. Just a few days ago the delightful DiGiacomo/Kalishman family from just outside New York City visited and enjoyed dark skies, a view of the late summer Milky Way through Sagittarius and a wonderful visual/video observing session. See their video photographs of deep sky objects by clicking this text.

Summer/Fall 2019

As the summer of 2019 comes into full swing, I am compelled to add this scheduling feature to

Unfortunately, due to my personal non-astronomical schedule, I have found it necessary to decline several requests to book observing/imaging sessions. The reasons are three-fold:

1 -- This year, due to excellent winter precipitation and a slow-warming, cool spring, I have scheduled even more white-water float trips (my other passion, in additional to photography and astronomy!) than normal.

2 -- Typically (this year included, but to a lesser degree) western wildfires often foul the sky, and without some wind (always present in spring and fall, but not so much in the summer) this naturally-occurring air pollution sometimes obscures the otherwise crystal-clear dark skies of northern New Mexico.

3 -- In the summertime, it doesn't normally really get dark until almost 10 P.M., which often limits observing due to the lateness of the hour!

Concluding then, I'm sorry but I will generally NOT be available during the rest of July 2019 and much of August 2019 as well. In September I will be available after about the 20th of the month, as the first half will be spent floating the fabulous dark-sky-sporting Main Salmon River in remote central Idaho. If you schedule an evening after that time, we can still enjoy many of the spectacular summer constellations and deep-sky objects, and at an earlier hour!

Also, with the introduction of the Atik Infinity video camera, employing that remarkable device will allow for observing/imaging even during bright moonlit nights.


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orion and dumbbell nebulae history
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orion and dumbbell nebulae "The Imperative of Night" narrative

Ghosts of Christmas Past
Please click this text or the image to the left to access Willis' second book -- Ghosts of Christmas Past -- a book of photographs and essays. The book chronicles more than thee decades of curiosity, discovery and celebration -- archived through the family's annual Christmas card featuring Willis' evocative images of natural wonders. Included are photographs of magnificent unique and endangered wildlife, spectacular scenics and (most appropriate here!) astronomical phenomena. Most years the holiday cards also featured essays describing these wonders literally. Click and review the book -- I hope you enjoy it!

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"The Imperative of Night" narrative
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