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Mar 18, 2013
My childhood best friend introduced me to science fiction. I remember borrowing every one of his copies of Isaac Asimov’s robot books as well as all of Ray Bradbury’s short stories. He had almost every Edgar Rice Burroughs paperback while I gathered all Frank Herbert’s Dune books as well as any Star Trek and Star Wars books I could find. You may ask what does science fiction have to do with photography. Not that much really, but let me explain where I’m going here.
Collecting sci-fi paperback books back then meant collecting some amazing cover art. Science fiction in particular had spectacular “other-world” art that often persuaded me to buy the book even though I had never heard of the author. These science fiction tales as well as the imagery that it came bundled in really did spark my interest in space and astronomy. So when a co-worker told me about a new comet that would be swinging by Earth this month, I was pretty excited. Up until now, I’d never seen or photographed a comet before.
Another co-worker shared a great website for stargazers (www.spaceweather.com) with me last year. I immediately consulted the site and found out about comet Pan-STARRS and the projected “best” time to view in the Northern Hemisphere. Starting early in March, the comet would make its appearance in the lower western sky just after sunset. On March 12th, I couldn’t resist my curiosity any longer. I was determined to find this comet and try to photograph it. It was cloudy in Sioux Falls, but the internet told me it would start to clear up somewhere west of Mitchell, so I west I went.
Between Plankinton and White Lake the clouds dissipated. I took the White Lake exit and proceeded north through town to find a suitable location to scan the sky. Since it was another scenic South Dakota sunset, I made sure to stop and shoot a few photographs as I drove by White Lake and up into the hills to the north.
I found a nice spot on a hillside northwest of town and although the waxing moon was beautiful, I could not see any sign of a comet. It was supposed to be just a few degrees to the left of the moon, but I couldn’t see it, even with binoculars. Another five to ten minutes went by and the sky grew darker. I was about ready to call the whole thing a bust when I decided I should at least get a shot of the moon over the landscape.
“There it is!” I whispered out loud. I was looking at the back of my camera and to my surprise, the comet showed up on the LCD. I still couldn’t see it in the sky, but the long exposure coupled with a telephoto lens brought it out unmistakably. I was giddy. I snapped a few more photos and then remembered a lone prairie windmill I had passed on the way up the hill. I grabbed my gear and drove as fast as possible to the side of the field with the windmill some 200 yards away. I grabbed my tripod, a flashlight and my camera then half ran, half stumbled though the field in order to line up the windmill, moon and comet.
I didn’t have much time as both the moon and the comet were sinking towards the horizon and the wispy cloud band was starting to obscure them. On my first shot, I missed the comet entirely, but happened to catch an owl on the windmill that I had no idea was even there. I widened out for my second shot and there it was. Comet Pan-Starrs was hanging in the sky just opposite of the moon with my windmill in between. The images my camera produced reminded me of one of those old science fiction covers I used to love as a kid, minus the spaceships and robots of course. On the way back home, I may or may not have cued up the Star Trek theme on my iPod. It’s funny what chasing a comet with a camera can do to a full-grown man.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog.