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Neowise the Comet: Update, 22 July 2020

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There is something extra in the ordinary of every single day...we just have to look for it.

Comets, often nicknamed "cosmic snowballs," are icy, rocky objects made up of ice, rock and dust. These objects orbit the sun, and as they slip closer to the sun most comets heat up and start streaming two tails, one made of dust and gas and an "ion tail" made of electrically-charged gas molecules, or ions.

Scientists think NEOWISE might also have a third tail, too, but only time and further analysis will tell.

NEOWISE is about 3 miles in diameter, which is about average for a comet.

— https://www.space.com/comet-neowise-strange-facts.html

NEOWISE the Comet

I’m no expert at space, the stars, the solar system. I am, however, one of the very small, living, breathing, moving dots on the big blue marble traveling once every 365ish days around that huge orange ball of fire in the middle of our solar system. Right now, I’m on the order of 64 million miles away from the comet with the moniker NEOWISE. Officially, it’s called C/2020 F3, but for folks like me, the name NEOWISE is oh-so-much cooler. And easier.

The comet grabbing attention and sparking imaginations is called NEOWISE for the mission that discovered it: NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. NEOWISE the spacecraft has a telescope on it that NASA has been using since 2013 to catalog objects in space that are near to planet Earth. On 27 March 2020, as the comet was headed toward the sun, C/2020 F3 was discovered by its namesake.

The comet passed as close as it will pass to the sun on 3 July 2020. The technical term for that is perihelion. It’s going to pass as close as it will pass to planet Earth on 22 July 2020. I’m not certain there is a technical term for that. Still, what’s most important here is that if you put yourself in the right place at the right time, you’ll be able to see NEOWISE in the northern skies. And my recommendation is that if you can do it, you should; it won’t be back for another almost 7000 years. It’s likely your eyes won’t be working quite as well by then.

Here’s a picture of NEOWISE taken by a friend of mine, a professional astrophotographer, a physicist, an expert at space, the stars and the solar system. Her name is Molly Wakeling, and she is the founder of AstronoMolly Images. Note the outstanding quality and detail in this picture. She has skill, ability and tools with which she produces high caliber images like this on a regular basis. Because seeing a comet is so rare, and because this picture is so good, it is not an exaggeration in my mind to call the image breathtaking. Enjoy.

Courtesy of AstronoMolly Images

Photo used with permission of Molly Wakeling, AstronoMolly Images

Photo used with permission of Molly Wakeling, AstronoMolly Images

Let's move over to the other end of the good/bad scale for just a moment. Here’s a picture I took of NEOWISE on the evening of 20 July 2020 with my iPhone. It’s not very good. Indeed, there is significant difference in the quality of Molly's picture vs. mine. You are probably able to discern that yourself, but to be sure: it looks like a picture of a black hole, of nothing, of a complete absence of light. When I posted it to my Facebook page, it garnered quite a few laughs.

neowise-the-comet

Here’s a picture I drew of NEOWISE after I saw it the first evening. This is intended to demonstrate where the comet was located that night in relation to the Big Dipper. I used a black-ink ballpoint pen to render this depiction. Within the limits of my artistic ability, this is what the comet looked like to me in the northwestern night sky.

neowise-the-comet

Updated Stick Drawing

On the evening of 21 July 2020, my wife, my son and I observed NEOWISE again from the back porch of our house. My son and I both noticed that the comet appeared to be in a slightly different location in relation to the Big Dipper. On the previous evening (20 July 2020), and as depicted above, the comet appeared to be nearly directly below the star in the bottom right hand corner of the dipper (this star is named Merak).

When we observed the comet on the evening of 21 July, however, it appeared to be located a little bit more to the left of straight below Merak, as depicted below in my new, updated drawing.

neowise-the-comet

Here’s another picture of NEOWISE taken by TheOtherKey, a professional photographer who posts images on Pixabay for free community use by writers like me. It is also a very good shot of the comet.

Comet NEOWISE in the night sky

Comet NEOWISE in the night sky

Great Comets are Rare

Why all the hubbub about comet NEOWISE? What makes it special? Well, if you think about how often you get to see a comet with your own two eyes, that's probably all the thinking you need to do. The last one I can personally remember seeing is Hale-Bopp. In the United States, anyway, I think Hale-Bopp was the closest thing we've had in recent memory to a "great" comet. And depending on which scientist you ask, which article you read, Hale-Bopp was not even considered a great comet due to size, brightness, etc. What made it great to the lay person, I think, was that it stuck around for so long. It was visible for quite some time--perhaps 1.5 years--so it was memorable. I had opportunity to see it from 30,000 feet on many occasions when I was flying airplanes for the US Air Force. Nothing quite so spectacular as to be up there far, far away from the world's light pollution and see a comet such as Hale-Bop from a vantage point another five or six miles closer than is attainable on the ground.

Sadly, Hale-Bopp was also memorable in the United States for the Heaven's Gate tragedy related to its passing by planet Earth. The comet 'inspired' the death of 39 people, all members of a cult with some particularly wild ideas about catching a ride on a spaceship hidden in the tail of the comet; a ride that would cost them only $5.75 USD so they all had exact change in their pockets when officials found them all dead, wearing identical clothes, lying in bunk beds in a mansion in San Diego. It was hard for me to believe so many people could buy into such a fanciful notion, and I remember to this day how hard the tragic news hit me.

The long and short of it, I suppose, is that NEOWISE is fascinating to me because I can see it with my own eyes, and I think that intuitively I know I'll not see a great many more comets in my lifetime. And even though C/2020 F3 is not a 'great' comet, it's still a great comet to me. I can see it, experience it, know it and ponder because it's there the whole business of life, the universe and everything. Hopefully, it will not inspire craziness like the Heaven's Gate incident, and instead just make people realize and wonder with awe at how tiny our piece of real estate is here on planet earth, somewhere out in the spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

Here’s a poem I put together to encourage you to get out there and see NEOWISE. It won't be in our neighborhood again for a long, long time, you see. And Hale-Bopp isn’t going to return for a few years, either (like in the year 4380ish). So…here you go. Hope you get out there and do that thing.


NEOWISE in the Skies

NEOWISE

In the skies

To the north

Below Ursa Major

NEOWISE

Tilt your eyes

To just below

The dipper’s bottom

Right hand star

There you are

NEOWISE

What a tale

We can tell

One tale

Of the tail

Of two tails

And maybe three

Time and science will tell

But for sure

And for now

One of dust and gas

And one of ions

So two

We can see

Like a sail

Like two sails

Both those tails

And the tale

We can tell

We were there

We are here

6800 years

Will pass

And we won’t be

But NEOWISE will be

Again

And then

C/2020 F3

Will be

Noted

As discovered

Near the day

That coincided

With when we decided

To acknowledge

A corona

Of the type

Not of the sun

And the stars

But a different kind

That’s on our mind

All the time

And everyday

So get away

Today

Or tonight, as it were

And look for her

If a she it be

The one named C/2020 F3

And called NEOWISE

In the skies

To the north

Below big bear

Lurking there

And as you stare

If you’re like me

You’ll see

How big things are

Out in the stars

And feel

So very small

Comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 08, 2020:

You are welcome.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on August 08, 2020:

Umesh - thank you so much for the fascinating comments on this. I would be very much interested to read more about star reading/star observation in days of old. Dhruv is a name I've never heard before, and I am happy to learn more of it. Please do contact me if you ever write an article on this topic, or Saptarshi or any other similar topics. Thanks again for the wonderful comments.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 08, 2020:

Well presented. Nice article. Having some interest in amateur astronomy, I liked your sketch. In our ancient Indian astronomy we call Ursa Major as 'Saptarshi' which symbolises seven old saints in our culture and mythology. This constellation appears to rotate around the Pole Star which incidentally known in our culture as 'Dhruv'. The story goes that Dhruv was a steady person. Not changing his stand. It is strange to note that our ancestors were able to note and observe the apparent motion of the various constellation so meticulously. Of course they did not have any scientific support that time and did whatever they could do with naked eyes. One day I might write a hub on that.

Thanks for posting this article. Stay blessed.

Robert Sacchi on August 01, 2020:

Good weekend to you too. And keep watching the sky.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on August 01, 2020:

Robert - yes, cell phones are not the greatest. I took a gag picture for this article with my cell phone. It is just a black hole, as it were. Anyway, thanks again for stopping by to give the article a look. Good weekend to you.

Robert Sacchi on July 29, 2020:

I took a couple of pictures of Hale-Bopp. It was like a fuzzy snowball, a small one. I'm sure it would have been much better had I been out in the woods somewhere. I have some real problems when I try to get pictures on my cell phone. In the daytime I tend to see my reflection.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 29, 2020:

Thanks, Robert. Sorry you didn’t get to see it. It wasn’t as spectacular as the Hale-Bopp comet, but it was visible with the unaided eye so that made it kind of special. The clouds have not been cooperative here since the writing of this article, either, so I think our comet-viewing days are over now.

Robert Sacchi on July 28, 2020:

Thanks for the article. Wasn't able to see it here. The clouds weren't cooperative. Those are nice pictures.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 27, 2020:

Thanks, William. I read quite a bit about the particular comet and the event, but I had to stay away for the most part from anything too much like real science. I have really enjoyed seeing the comet and sitting out on the porch staring at it, pondering it with my son and my bride.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 27, 2020:

Eric - water on mars! Hope you got to see the comet; it's not been 'see-able' here for many a day due to moonlight, clouds, etc. The hand-drawn picture #2 was made with a few different colors of crayon. I've not done such good work since I was about three years old methinks. Still, I do think it gets the idea across.

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on July 26, 2020:

Hi Greg. that was quite a bit of information from someone who doesn't claim to be an expert. Thank you, my friend.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 24, 2020:

Very cool. We will see it tonight -- I like the hand drawn picture the most. Water on mars.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 22, 2020:

Hi Flourish,

Yes! That's a great way to put it. Theoretical, but also very real. The stars were there, the comet was there. Just because you can't see them doesn't make them not real! Haha!

And yes, Miss Molly is a wonder to behold. She is also an officer in the US Air Force right now pursuing her PhD in physics at UC-Berkley. She's an impressive young lady and very generous to allow me to use her photo.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 22, 2020:

Your all dark photo was very theoretical. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Thanks for this interesting information. Molly the physicist is quite some inspiration. I enjoyed the poem!

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 21, 2020:

Bill, that is something! It's more than some folks, for sure. I should have a better picture soon, and also I can call you if you'd like at 2230L and wake you up so you can go out and see it. ;)

Have a good afternoon, my friend.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 21, 2020:

Sha - haha! Right you are. When I said my picture is "not very good," I meant it was awful and I was kind of being funny. If you look at it at night you might be able to see some lights off stars in there, but I am betting not. Anyway, I'm working on permission to get a real nice photo of it from a friend of mine who's a professional space photographer and physicist, too. Hopefully I'll get that done this PM and be able to modify the article a bit. There's some tongue in cheek here, but the real point of the story is to encourage folks to get out there and not miss it! I had to have my wife and son wake me up last night in order to see it, and I intend to do the same tonight.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 21, 2020:

I meant to go out and look for it, but forgot. Sigh! I'll probably forget about it tonight, too. Sigh! At least I read your poem and looked at your pics, so that's something, right? :)

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 21, 2020:

I'll have to try to remember to go outside tomorrow night once it gets dark. I'm usually in bed by 8:00 thru the week (gotta get my beauty rest, doncha know!).

Thanks for the reminder, Box. BTW, is it my eyes or am I failing to see what you saw in the picture you took? It looks like black sky to me.