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Remembering Comet NEOWISE: Video, Prose and a Short Poem

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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 had a third tail, too, but only time and further analysis will tell.

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

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

Comet NEOWISE Timelapse into Sunrise Over Oregon

NEOWISE the Comet

I’m no expert on space, the stars, the solar system. I am instead—and like you—simply just one of the small, living, breathing, moving, sentient dots hanging out on our big blue marble. We are all together in this canoe, traveling once every 365ish days around the great ball o’ fire in the center point of our solar system.

In summer 2020, we had a close encounter with a fellow galactic resident who won’t be back in the neighborhood for another 6800 years. Comet NEOWISE was its name, and at its closest approach to Earth, it was a mere 64 million miles away. Perihelion—which is a comet’s closest approach to the sun—was 27 million miles.

For many nights in summer 2020, the comet was visible with the naked eye. It looked like this from the USA:

Courtesy of AstronoMolly Images

Photo used with permission of Molly Wakeling, AstronoMolly Images

Photo used with permission of Molly Wakeling, AstronoMolly Images

On the evening of 21 July 2020, my wife, my son and I observed NEOWISE from the back porch of our house. It was much fainter than this professional image taken by my friend Molly is able to depict, but it was breathtaking nevertheless.

Here’s another picture of NEOWISE taken by a different professional photographer. It is also a tremendous shot of the comet.

Comet NEOWISE in the night sky

Comet NEOWISE in the night sky

Great Comets are Rare

Why did we have all the hubbub about comet NEOWISE in summer 2020? What made it so special?

Well, apart from being a nice distraction from all the turmoil in the world that year, there’s this to consider as well: 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, honestly. Though it wasn’t visible in great detail—it was not a “great” comet, after all—NEOWISEE could be seen with the naked eye. It could be seen even better with a pair of binoculars or a backyard telescope. That is one reason NEOWISE was special.

Another reason? Well, I know for my part, the last time I saw a comet before NEOWISE was when Hale-Bopp passed very near to the Earth. In the United States, anyway, Hale-Bopp was the closest thing we'd had in recent memory to a "great" comet. And depending on which scientist you ask, which article you read, Hale-Bopp was also not 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. It was really memorable for me personally because I had opportunity to see it from 30,000 feet on many occasions when I was flying jets 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 for many in the US because of 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. The ride, they believed, was only going to cost $5.75 USD so they all had exact change in their pockets when officials found them 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 believe such a fanciful notion. I remember well to this day how hard the tragic news hit me.

The long and short of it, then, is that NEOWISE was fascinating to me because I could see it with my own two eyes, and also because I know I'll not see a great many more comets in my lifetime. Therefore, C/2020 F3—NEOWISE’s technical name—may not be a 'great' comet, but it’ll always be a great comet to me. I could see it, experience it, know it. For a time, it allowed me to contemplate the whole business of life, the universe and everything. I’m sure there are others who followed its near approach to Earth with the same feeling of awe and wonder as me. It is mind boggling to consider how very tiny our piece of real estate is here on planet earth, somewhere out in the spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

NEOWISE – A Poem

Here’s a poem I put together to celebrate NEOWISE. This intriguing comet will not be back in our neighborhood again for a long, long time. I, for one, will never get to see it again.

NEOWISE in the Skies

NEOWISE

In the skies

To the north

Below Ursa Major

NEOWISE

You could tilt your eyes

To just below

The dipper’s bottom

Right hand star

And there you are

There it was

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 could 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 came

To acknowledge

A corona

Of a different kind

Not of the sun

And the stars

But a different kind

That’s on our mind

All the time

And everyday

So it was good

To get away

At night

From the lights

And look for her

If a she it be

Or were

The one named C/2020 F3

And called NEOWISE

In the skies

To the north

Below big bear

Lurking there

And as you’d stare

If you’re like me

You’d see

How big things are

Out in the stars

And feel

So very small

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 greg cain

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.

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