Jul 13 2020

Sighting NEOWISE

Rosemary

Yesterday I managed a lovely sighting of everybody’s favorite new comet, NEOWISE, which has been gracing our morning sky for the last few days.

Well.  Gracing the sky of those with no cloud cover!  It’s been cloudy and rainy and even thunderstorming for a full week here in southern New England.  But yesterday, as I was coming home from the office, I saw that we had, miraculously, a perfect, clear sky.  And since I tend to leave my office around 2:30, 3:00 AM, all I had to do was stay up for about another hour to reach the best pre-dawn sighting time.

Unlike most comets that amble through our skies, it can actually be seen with the naked eye.  And if you’re an old hand at star-watching, like me, it’s not hard to find.

However, if you’re not an old hand at star-watching and backyard astronomy — it can be next to impossible to spot!   So, here are some tips.

1. IT’S LITTLE

Space, as Douglas Adams famously said, is Big.  The comet is little.   It’s a teeny-tiny thing in the great big sky.

All those great photos you’ve seen on the internet, with the big comet and flashy tail filling the image?  Yeah, they were made with big fat lenses on the camera.  Telephoto, and such.  Or made with digital cameras with super-high resolution, creating an image that you can later expand the hell out of and crop down to something big and dramatic.

But up there in the sky — it’s little.  Still absolutely worth seeing!   It’s like a beautiful, eerie little ghost…

So:

2. USE BINOCULARS WHEN FIRST LOCATING IT

Binoculars are sadly underrated as aids to star-gazing.  But really, your average modern binoculars are about as good as the very first telescope that Galileo peered through.   That pair you have in the back of your closet will do just fine.  (Be sure you know how to focus them.)

Once you’ve spotted the comet with binoculars, you’ll find you can also see it without them — just, you know, smaller.

But you might not be able to see the tail very well with the naked eye, because its light is fighting horizon haze, light pollution, and the approaching sunrise.  Those things can (and probably will) drown out the dim tail entirely…   But with binoculars, you will see the tail.

All this, of course, assuming that you:

3. KNOW WHERE TO LOOK

It’s currently in the morning sky, northeast, an hour or so before dawn. But as instructions go, that’s a little vague.

Try looking for Venus, currently crazily brilliant in  our morning sky, in the east.  It’ll be the brightest thing you can see.   Start there, and then scan along to the left, with a little bit of up and down as you go.  You should encounter the comet along the way.

Or, use a chart!  This article in Sky & Telescope online has some excellent charts.  Scroll down past the big dramatic photos to reach them.

Comet NEOWISE Delights at Dawn

 

The comet is a morning object in the northeast until the 15th,  and becomes an early evening object in the northwest from the 14th onward.   Yes, there’s an overlap when you can see it in the morning, and in the evening.  This is not as weird as you might think.  Because it’s scooting along in the north part of our sky.

Once it’s an evening object, you can use the Big Dipper to find it… but it will get dimmer.  Because, sadly, it is going away….

Meanwhile, it’s now past 4AM, which is prime viewing time — but now it’s gone all cloudy here!  Alas.

Well, time to pack it in, and go home… maybe there will be a crack in the clouds in the northeast?