Michigan astronomers, professional and amateur alike, are looking to the sky as the newly discovered Comet NEOWISE approaches Earth.
“It’s the most beautiful comet I’ve ever seen,” said Diane Hall, president of the Warren Astronomical Society. “It’s got that long, streaming classic tail that looks just like a waterfall. It’s got a beautiful, bright nucleus. It’s just gorgeous.”
Comet NEOWISE, named for the satellite that first obtained shots of the celestial object in March, won’t return for another 6,800 years after July 22. It is one of the few comets visible to the unaided eye in the Northern Hemisphere in recent decades.
“When we discovered it in March, we didn’t think it would become anything special,” said Paulette Epstein, Michigan Science Center’s director of planetarium programs and a solar system ambassador for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“The fact that you are able to see a comet with the naked eye is kind of amazing. When we think of Hale-Bopp or Halley’s Comet, those are really, really big comets. The fact that this is a relatively small comet and yet is so easily visible — it’s special to see something like that up in the sky.”
The comet is about 3 miles across. Scientists aren’t sure why Comet NEOWISE is so visible, Epstein said, but the “dirty snowball” made of chunks of ice, dust and other debris from the solar system has a large concentration of sodium that contributes to its brightness. It also has a second blue tail made of particles charged by the sun.
When can I see NEOWISE?
NEOWISE can be seen shortly after dusk and in the hours before dawn. Usually around 10:30 p.m., it’s visible in Metro Detroit for about an hour, and appears again around 3:30 a.m. until dawn. The darker the sky, the easier it is to see. Farther north, the comet is circumpolar, which means it does not set and is visible throughout the night.
The comet was at its brightest July 3 when it reached its peak around the sun with a magnitude of 0.5, Epstein said. It will continue to grow dimmer, though its tail will lengthen as it continues to melt from the sun. Its magnitude is about 2 now, and a magnitude of 6 is no longer visible. That level should happen after July 22 when the comet is closest to Earth just 64 million miles away.
How can I see it?
Comet NEOWISE is in the north-northwest sky at night and north-northeast sky in the morning. Identifying the Big Dipper can help with finding it, since the comet is below the scoop in the sky and closer to the horizon.
“That line of the two stars at the bottom of the bowl of the dipper point to the general direction to see comet NEOWISE,” Epstein said.
It is visible to the human eye, though some enthusiasts admit they have had some trouble identifying it. Looking at it with averted vision, which means with the corner of your eye can help with seeing the comet’s tail more clearly since the peripherals are better at detecting light. Binoculars are helpful, too, though telescopes might provide too close of a view.
Where can I see the comet?
Epstein recently was able to spy NEOWISE from the 18th story of her apartment building in Detroit, and Hall spotted it across Michigan Avenue in Dearborn with binoculars. Better views, however, are places with less light pollution.
Since the comet is close to the horizon, scenes unobstructed by trees and buildings are ideal. Some skywatchers have had luck looking over lakes and rivers. State and county parks that are open late may be options.
Most local astronomy clubs that typically would hold observation events are holding off due to COVID-19.
How can I get a good photo?
A smartphone probably can get an image of the comet, though clearer photos require longer exposure time. Astrophotographers shooting CometNEOWISE recommend bringing a tripod and allowing light exposure for 2-5 seconds. Stacking the images also help to prevent stars from looking like lines instead of pinpoints as the sky moves. With a tracking mount, the exposure can be longer.
Why won’t we see it again for so long?
The comet is believed to originate in the Oort cloud, the outermost layer of our Milky Way solar system, Epstein said. That makes its orbit around the sun longer than some other comets like Halley’s that originate from the closer Kuiper Belt.
“It’s a comet for the decade; you don’t get these too often,” said Tony Licata, 59, of Hamburg. “It’s just spectacular, though it’s getting faint now. It’s fading. You’d better hurry if you want to see it.”
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