Halley’s Comet: Some Tips on How to Get a Look at It

Times Staff Writer

In May of 1910 after a nice dinner, folks in Santa Ana and Orange and thereabouts went out on their front porches, looked west in the just-darkened sky and saw a sight that could knock your socks off: Halley’s comet, bright and stretching across nearly half the sky.

Now, the comet is back, as it has been every 76 years since it was first recorded about 200 BC.

But this time you needn’t worry about losing your socks. At its biggest and brightest, the comet will be 16 times dimmer and smaller than it was over dark, rural Orange County in 1910. If you want to see the comet from the front porch this time, you’ll have to take a picture of it along with you.


Poor Viewing Conditions

It will be the second-worst viewing conditions ever recorded, according to Stephen P. Lattanzio, a professor of astronomy at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa and director of its planetarium.

Yet, you can see the comet in Orange County without traveling too far from home, he said. There are ways to view it, even with the naked eye, if you know when, from where and in what direction to look.

“One of our instructors said he can see it now from his backyard in Newport Beach with a small telescope,” Lattanzio said. “You can see it with binoculars from the darker areas of Orange County.”

But you must know exactly where to aim the binoculars, and even if you actually zero in on the comet, you may not recognize it, he said. Right now, it looks more like a tiny cotton ball. No tail is visible.

If you know where to look with binoculars (see chart on Page 10), a fairly dark backyard might be sufficient, Lattanzio said. But getting away from city lights makes for much better viewing, and the farther away, the better.

The general rule followed by astronomers is to travel at least 30 miles from the nearest concentration of night lighting. But, Lattanzio said, going to the darker fringes of Orange County’s outlying communities will be sufficient for binocular or telescope observations.


Look for a site above or away from the smog where you can legally and safely pull off the road and where you will not be bothered by headlights sweeping across your field of vision. You must give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness so you can see what you’re looking for. Catching sight of a headlight or flashlight or cigarette lighter means you have to start the 15 minutes over again.

Covered Flashlight

(You can use a flashlight, however, if you cover the lens with red cellophane. Dim red light is less detrimental to night vision, Lattanzio said.)

Taking a boat 30 miles offshore would provide a dark sky, but shipboard observations through binoculars and telescopes are made difficult by the boat’s movement, Lattanzio said. Ocean observations will be more practical when the comet becomes visible to the naked eye in March and April, he added.

You also must avoid moonlight, which obscures the comet. The chart on Page 10 shows the dates on which the moon does not interfere.

In December and January, when the comet is too faint to see without binoculars or a telescope, observers must depend on star charts to locate the correct patch of sky.

People who know how to find the Big Dipper and the North Star should be able to use the accompanying diagram to locate Pegasus, the constellation nearest the comet that is easily visible to the naked eye. (The Circlet shown on the diagram is also visible to the naked eye, but only in dark locations.)


Others can get help from star charts available at outdoor shops or bookstores. These charts adjust to show the arrangement of stars in the sky at any specific time. Such charts will show the location of the Big Dipper, North Star and Pegasus.

You will know when you’ve spotted the comet, because it will not look like a star. It will be relatively bright but much larger than a star and will have a fuzzy, translucent look, Lattanzio said. It will be round, or at most have a very short tail.

Reappears in March

During February, the comet will swing out of sight behind the sun, and when it reappears in March it and its tail would be visible to the naked eye--if the moon were not up to spoil most opportunities to see it.

Lattanzio suggests reserving the hour just before dawn on Saturday, March 22, to view the comet. It is worth the effort, he said, because the comet’s angle to the Earth will make the tail appear to be at its longest in March.

Go somewhere dark enough so that the Milky Way is visible. (The comet will be about that bright.) Time your sky search so that your eyes will be adjusted to the darkness at about 4:15 a.m.--just after the moon has set.

Look southeast. If you have a compass, look in the direction of 122 degrees on the dial. If you don’t have a compass, imagine a clock face with the 12 pointing north and look in the direction the hour hand would point at 4:30.


The comet will be 12 degrees above the horizon--roughly the height of your fist if held at arm’s length. It will be visible to the naked eye and be about as long as your extended fist.

“That’s your best chance in March and the best view up to that point,” Lattanzio said. “Any earlier in the month and the comet is lower and fainter. Any later, and the moon is still up.”

In April, the comet will be closest to Earth and therefore brightest. According to Lattanzio’s calculations, which are based on avoiding the moon and catching the comet at its highest point, these are the approximate times for the best views in April:

Saturday, April 5--4 a.m.

Sunday, April 6--4 a.m.

Monday, April 7--3:30 a.m.

Tuesday, April 8--3 a.m.

Wednesday, April 9--2:30 a.m.

Thursday, April 10--2 a.m.

Friday, April 11--1:30 a.m.

Saturday, April 12--1 a.m.

Sunday, April 13--12:30 a.m.

No precise coordinates will be necessary to find the comet on the above dates, Lattanzio said. In areas dark enough to see the Milky Way, the comet will be obvious to the naked eye, hovering about 10 degrees (one fist) above the horizon due south.

“You won’t need a telescope then,” he said. “Binoculars will be much better.”

But where do you go if you want the maximum view?

Many serious comet watchers are heading inland--to the California deserts and to Arizona and Texas--because the skies are more reliably clear. Coastal regions of California often get early morning clouds and fog in March and April.

But there are places closer to home that are good enough to have been selected as observatory sites.


The Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles keeps its 12-inch refractor telescope trained on the comet every clear night until midnight, and visitors are welcome to take a look. (A tape-recorded “Sky Report” at (213) 663-8171 tells sky conditions for each day.) The observatory, however, must cope with a rather bad case of light pollution from the city below.

The nights are still inky at Caltech’s Palomar Mountain Observatory about 25 miles east of Oceanside, but its mammoth 200-inch reflector telescope is not open to the public. Nor are its grounds after dark.

There are, however, public campgrounds nearby: Palomar Mountain State Park, and the Fry Creek and Observatory campgrounds in Cleveland National Forest. All three offer good vantage points for comet watchers, according to Robert Thicksten, superintendent of the Palomar observatory.

Adjacent the observatory grounds is the Gus Weber picnic area, which is open to the public at all hours as long as visitors don’t set up camp, Thicksten said.

He added that people going to Palomar Mountain in April should be prepared for “very cold, clear, crisp nights. You can also expect snow.”

He cautioned, too, that typically about half the nights in April are cloudy.


The chart below, calculated by Stephen P. Lattanzio, professor of astronomy at Orange Coast College, applies only to Southern California


Direction is given in two ways:

-First, the number of degrees on a compass dial. Use the actual (“magnetic”) compass reading, not one adjusted for “true north.”

-Second, the approximate direction of the hour hand of a clock face held level with the number 12 pointing toward true north.

Distance above the horizon is also given in two ways:

-First, the actual elevation in degrees.

-Second, an approximation based on the number of “fists.” (Hold your fist, thumb at the top, at arm’s length. Its height represents about 10 of elevation at the horizon.)

On This At This Look in This Date Time Direction Sun., Dec. 1 7:30-8 p.m. 154 (5:30) 69 (7 fists) Mon., Dec. 2 7:30-8 p.m. 163 (6:00) 68 (7 fists) Tue., Dec. 3 7:30-8 p.m. 172 (6:15) 67 (6 1/2 fists) Wed., Dec. 4 7:30-8 p.m. 180 (6:30) 66 (6 1/2 fists) Thu., Dec. 5 7:30-8 p.m. 187 (6:45) 64 (6 1/2 fists) Fri., Dec. 6 7:30-8 p.m. 193 (7:00) 63 (6 1/2 fists) Sat., Dec. 7 7:30-8 p.m. 198 (7:00) 61 (6 fists) Sun., Dec. 8 7:30-8 p.m. 202 (7:15) 59 (6 fists) Mon., Dec. 9 7:30-8 p.m. 206 (7:15) 57 (5 1/2 fists) Tue., Dec. 10 7:30-8 p.m. 209 (7:30) 55 (5 1/2 fists) Wed., Dec. 11 7:30-8 p.m. 212 (7:30) 53 (5 1/2 fists) Thu., Dec. 12 7:30-8 p.m. 214 (7:30) 51 (5 fists) Fri., Dec. 13 7:30-8 p.m. 217 (7:45) 49 (5 fists) Sat., Dec. 14 7:30-8 p.m. 219 (7:45) 47 (4 1/2 fists) Sun., Dec. 15 7:30-8 p.m. 221 (7:45) 45 (4 1/2 fists) Wed., Jan. 1 6:30-7 p.m. 230 (8:15) 29 (3 fists) Thu., Jan. 2 6:30-7 p.m. 231 (8:15) 28 (3 fists) Fri., Jan. 3 6:30-7 p.m. 232 (8:15) 26 (2 1/2 fists) Sat., Jan. 4 6:30-7 p.m. 233 (8:15) 25 (2 1/2 fists) Sun., Jan. 5 6:30-7 p.m. 234 (8:15) 24 (2 1/2 fists) Mon., Jan. 6 6:30-7 p.m. 235 (8:15) 22 (2 fists) Tue., Jan. 7 6:30-7 p.m. 235 (8:15) 21 (2 fists) Wed., Jan. 8 6:30-7 p.m. 236 (8:15) 20 (2 fists) Thu., Jan. 9 6:30-7 p.m. 237 (8:15) 18 (2 fists) Fri., Jan. 10 6:30-7 p.m. 238 (8:30) 17 (1 1/2 fists) Sat., Jan. 11 6:30-7 p.m. 239 (8:30) 16 (1 1/2 fists) Sun., Jan. 12 6:30-7 p.m. 239 (8:30) 15 (1 1/2 fists) Mon., Jan. 13 6:30-7 p.m. 240 (8:30) 13 (1 1/2 fists) Tue., Jan. 14 6:30-7 p.m. 241 (8:30) 12 (1 fist) Wed., Jan. 15 6:30-7 p.m. 242 (8:30) 11 (1 fist) Thu., Jan. 16 6:30-7 p.m. 243 (8:30) 10 (1 fist) Fri., Jan. 17 6:30-7 p.m. 243 (8:30) 8 (1 fist) Sat., Jan. 18 6:30-7 p.m. 244 (8:30) 7 ( 1/2 fist)