The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Bill Rodgers

There's still time to see the Neowise Comet


Bill Rodgers

The comet has been visible in our area early in the mornings between 2 and 3 a.m.

Comet Neowise was discovered on March 27, 2020, by the infra-red Neowise telescope placed in orbit in 2009. It promises to be one of the more visible comets for viewing in a quite a while. A retrograde comet (it moves around the sun in the opposite direction of the Sun's rotation), Neowise orbits the sun once every 6,766 years - which means that no one will see it for a very long time. Don't miss it this time around if you want to see it!

Comets are rather large frozen snowballs composed of water ice and dust, and often other frozen simple chemical substances such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane - dating back 4.6 billion years to the birth of our solar system. It's the material left over after our solar system condensed from its original cloud of gases and dust. Comets spend most of their existence at -459.67 degrees F wandering the distant Oort Cloud, wondering what to do with themselves until they finally get to dazzle Earthlings with a brief fly-by. Kanye West would not like this schedule of appearances. [Author's apology: Sorry, I just could not resist.]

At approximately three miles in diameter, Comet Neowise is considered to be a fairly large comet. This is one snowball you would not want to get clobbered with! Comet Neowise passed nearest the Sun (perihelion) on July 3 and is now headed back into deep space. It will pass within 64-million miles (no worries – that's way beyond the Moon), on July 23, 2020.

When comets start to warm up as they approach their star (in this case our Sun), their components begin to heat up, vaporize, and boil off, leaving a long trail of gases and dust behind them called a "tail." Comet tails, which are "blown" through planetary system spaces (like ours) by solar winds, always point away from the stars they orbit. Contrary to common belief, comets are not on fire, and thus the tails are not composed of flames. Comet tails are simply the light of the orbited star being reflected off the cloud of vaporized gases and dust left behind comets as they zoom through space.

Neowise observers have been viewing the comet around 3:30 AM for the past few weeks, just as the morning sky began to lighten in the northeast. However, due to solar mechanics, Neowise reportedly will no longer be visible in the mornings shortly after July 11. Instead, it will grace the evening skies of The Wallouse until mid-August at what might be considered more "polite" hours. To find Neowise for the next three to four weeks, go outside at the end of Civil Twilight (9:30 PM-ish right now) and look approximately 20 degrees (approximately one to two fists with arm held at length) above the horizon to the northwest. On July 13, Neowise will be seen just above the constellation of Gemini. As the comet continues its path across the evening skies during the next four weeks, it will move from the Lynx constellation toward the area below Ursa Major (translation: the "Big Bear"), which we all know as "The Big Dipper." A good pair of binoculars is recommended to help you initially locate comet Neowise, and to see it better.

Sound confusing? It's not. Simply download the free app "Sky Map", if you do not already have it installed on your smartphone, to help you locate those constellations. You can also Google "How to see comet Neowise" for more detailed instructions and viewing times. Good luck, and happy viewing.

If you want to photograph the comet, a steady tripod is needed, and a short (80 – 150 mm) telephoto lens works just fine. Turn off autofocus and lens stabilization, and focus manually at infinity. Open the lens aperture all the way (low f-stop number, ex. 2.8). Set ISO to 3200 or 6400. Set exposure anywhere from 20 seconds to 5 seconds – you will have to experiment a bit to get it the way you want it.

Compiled from various unverified on-line sources by the unknown and uncertified (but certifiable) "Waitsburg Astramoner" [sic]


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