Friday, 9 March 2012

Observing Comet Garradd (C-2009/P1) - the one that got away?

It's looking more and more as if we are not going to get any data on Comet Garradd from the Gemini Telescope. The weather over the Big Island of Hawaii is truly awful. We delayed coming up to the summit tonight until 11pm, as the situation looked more dire than ever.

And our progress up the dirt road was accompanied by a thunderstorm. It's quite cool to look down on a thunderstorm happening in the clouds below you. But it's not very encouraging in terms of being able to get good observations.

Coming up the mountain road in the winter months can be quite an experience. To the north, slopes are sprinkled with snow that sometimes drifts deep. But south across the saddle between Maunakea and Mauna Loa you can see the vent of Kilauea - Halemaumau. In the daytime, depending on how active the volcano is, steam and smoke can be seen pouring out of the vent. That's impressive enough.

But at night, and particularly from the vantage point of the road up the mountain, the view alters subtly. For now the smokestack arising from the vent is lit up by the red-hot molten lava in the pit crater. To the east of Halemaumau, the glow can be seen from lava creeping down the side of Mauna Loa from the Pu'uO'o crater. That crater started erupting on January 3, 1983, and has been erupting ever since. Recently it demolished the last house standing in a small settlement called Royal Gardens.

All night we have been monitoring the satellite images relayed by the Mauna Kea Weather Center. They show clouds building up to the west of Hawaii and drifting north-eastwards. Unfortunately for every cloud that drifts by a new one is ready to take its place. Last night, the prospects were so dire we came down from the observatory at 3am, three hours before the nominal end of our shift. It's 3am again and not looking any better, but we're going to stick it out to the end.

If Comet Garradd is going to be the one that got away, and its going to escape to the depths of the interstellar medium without having its spectrum taken, it won't be for lack of trying on our part!

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