Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) in Death Valley National Park
"Green Comet Over Mesquite Flat" was taken in Death Valley National Park in the sandy expanse of the Mesquite Flat Sand dunes. The last time this comet showed up was tens of thousands of years ago. Scientists think it won't come back for another 50,000 years. They think it might not ever come back. We could be the last humans to look up and see this hunk of ice hurtling through the sky.
When I first heard the Green Comet was heading towards us, I knew I had to try and photograph it. However, nothing about this was easy.
First, I live in Chicago. This was taken in January. If you didn't know, there aren't a lot of clear skies in the midwest during the winter. Where I live is also flooded with light pollution - look up and you may be luck to see a dozen stars. But as I investigated places to get away from the lights - Pictured Rocks, Rocky Mountain NP, even Alaska,; all of them had cloudy forecasts. Death Valley was the only place I could find with dark skies that was also affordable.
I carved out two days to visit the park. That gave me two mornings where the waxing moon wouldn't be in the sky and I could have a chance at capturing the comet. When I checked the forecast before my trip, one of those mornings would be at least partly cloudy. Fantastic.
I arrived and immediately began scouting. My top location I wanted to visit was Ubehebe crater. I thought it'd be super cool to have a comet in the sky and a crater in the foreground. When I arrived at the visitor center, more bad news. Because of flooding in 2023, most roads into the northern half of the park were closed. Super!
So I scouted some other locations. I needed an interesting foreground that had a clear view of the northern sky. The comet was projected to be near Polaris, in the constellation Camelopardalis. Contenders were Rainbow Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, and Artist's Drive. And the crater WAS a possibility, I'd just need to drive on unpaved roads meant for 4x4 vehicles to get there. I did not have a 4x4 vehicle.
Still, I decided to give the crater a shot, planning on turning around if things looked dicey. After Gold Point, an old ghost town, the road definitely got sketchy. And there was a dusting of snow complicating manners. After I got stuck in some deep sand AND snow and managed to push myself out, I decided to give up on the crater, and scouted the other locations.
If it was easy, it wouldn't be worth it, right?
Luckily, Monday evening and Tuesday morning were clear. My fingers were turning numb as I tried to locate the comet with my camera (I'm 42, my eyes aren't good enough to see if with the naked eye). After many, many failed attempts and a quick drive to cell phone coverage to download a new stargazing app with the comet in it, I was able to lock into it. I shot as many photos as I could with different settings and focal lengths. I shot a photo of the foreground as nighttime ended and nautical twilight / blue hour began to spread light over the landscape, allowing me to get the dunes and an interesting dead tree I'd scouted during the day. I sped out of there to catch my flight
In the airport, I started playing with settings to bring out the detail in the comet. Because I had to shoot at a high ISO, I stacked several pictures to get something that was clear and had more light info in it. As the green glow and the tail revealed itself, I definitely felt like I'd captured something special.
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