A television show almost a year and a half ago got carpenter Stephen Boeker looking toward the skies. It turned out his enthusiasm for astronomy came at the right time.
An eclipse, a transit of Venus and two comets visible to the naked eye were just a few of the things that he was able to see in the heavens above.
“It was ridiculous. All this stuff was happening right when I get into it,” Boeker, a member of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, said.
Boeker was one of the Baton Rouge stargazers who trained his telescope and camera on the comet Pan-STARRS last week. Although visible in the Baton Rouge area without optics at times and with binoculars at other times, this comet can be difficult to spot because it appears for a limited time each night just after sunset and very low on the western horizon.
“It’s a very nice comet, but there are some difficulties in finding it,” Erin Anding, education curator at the Highland Park Road Observatory, said.
To accommodate the public, Anding said, observatory personnel moved public viewings to the Burbank Soccer Complex to avoid an observatory-area tree line that blocked views of the comet.
Although the comet is going to grow fainter, the Highland Park Road Observatory will continue to offer public viewings at the Burbank Soccer Complex from 7:15 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. But since there is such a small window of opportunity in the evening to see the comet, specific times are available at the observatory’s website, http://www.bro.lsu.edu/.
The biggest caution is that since the comet comes into view at sunset, people need to use approved optics that can be trained toward the general direction of the sun, Anding said.
If there’s any doubt, don’t attempt to find the comet until the sun is below the horizon.
Boeker said he went out hunting the comet twice earlier this month, once to the soccer complex and once to one of the top floors of a parking garage in downtown Baton Rouge. He ended up with 40 photos of the comet through his telescope.
“Then I came home and tried to figure out my software because I’m still new at this,” he said with a laugh.
However, ask Boeker about comets, stars, planets or items of the night sky and his eyes light up with the possibilities.
One of those possibilities is comet ISON now being watched by both professional and amateur astronomers.
Discovered last year, comet ISON should be visible during November in the Baton Rouge area as it heads toward a close brush with the sun, according to information from NASA.
“It holds a lot of promise. The only thing with comets is they’re very unpredictable,” Merrill Hess, vice president of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, said. “You can project they will do one thing, but they do something else.”
Although there are hopes that the comet will end up being a very bright one, visible in the northern hemisphere without the help of binoculars or telescope, the fate of comets is always uncertain, Anding said.
“They’re notoriously fickle,” she said.
Boeker said even with the uncertainty, comet ISON could produce a pretty good view.
“If it actually passes the sun and survives, that’s when we’ll see the light show,” he said.
Boeker said the excitement he gets from learning more about astronomy and the enthusiasm he sees from parents and their children during the public viewings the society helps facilitate at the observatory is what he wants to share with everyone.
“You don’t have to be a professional,” Boeker said. “Every day is the ho-hum type of thing, but if you just look up, your whole day changes.”