Friday, July 17, 2020

Happy Friday

Look, up in the sky…

Eager sky watchers are turning to the heavens as Comet NEOWISE, one of the brightest comets in a generation, starts climbing ever higher among the evening stars.

A majority of comets fly through the solar system invisible to humans, usually too small and dim to be seen with the naked eye. The last frozen ice ball that gave us a big show was Hale-Bopp, a comet that was visible for nearly 18 months around its closest approach to Earth in 1997.

Officially designated C/2020 F3, Comet NEOWISE was discovered on March 27 and had until this week been visible only to committed comet viewers willing to wake up in the early pre-dawn hours. But on Monday, NEOWISE tipped into the post-sunset sky and has even been spotted by people living near city centers with all the light pollution.

“It’s the first time in 23 years that this is possible,” said Federica Spoto, an astronomer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “You can watch it from your backyard and you don’t need a telescope.”

To catch NEOWISE yourself, look up at the northwest skies about an hour and a half after sunset. Experts suggest going to the darkest area you can for best viewing. Find the Big Dipper and follow its ladle as it arcs in the direction of the horizon.

NEOWISE will appear under the Big Dipper about 10 degrees above the horizon and be about as bright as that constellation’s stars. If you hold out your arm, 10 degrees is roughly the part of the sky covered by your fist. Over the next few days, NEOWISE will move higher in the sky and be easier to spot, reaching its apex on July 23, when it makes its closest approach to Earth.

Good binoculars will allow you to see more of the comet and its spectacular dust tail. Lucky viewers might even catch the fainter blue ion tail, made from charged particles flying off the comet’s icy nucleus. NEOWISE is visible only to observers in the Northern Hemisphere and should remain bright enough to spot into mid-August.

For those looking to capture a souvenir of their experience, a digital camera placed on a tripod and set to a five- or 10-second exposure could do the trick, said Ernesto Guido, an amateur astronomer in Italy. Many cellphones allow users to change the settings on their cameras and achieve surprisingly good results. Try framing NEOWISE against a nice background such as a tree, Mr. Guido suggested.

Sometimes we need to remember that there are things larger than ourselves and that our time is fleeting. The next time NEOWISE comes by — 68,000 years from now — let’s hope our descendants will be around to see it.

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