A Trip to The End of The Road

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Sky Gazing


Have we mentioned that during this pandemic we diligently search for interesting things to see and do while staying safe and free of COVID19?!?  Well, that is exactly why, last Saturday, we got into the car and drove ‘til we found the end of a road.  The end of any road would do because we were searching for an area without ambient light.  We wanted to scan the night sky for the newly discovered comet, NEOWISE (C/2020 F3).  We were successful as we came upon a dead-end street, not too far away, overlooking a wetland.  We pulled out the binoculars and camera.  Then relaxed to savor the calm and serenity of the heavens above!!!

But first, let’s look at some info about the NEOWISE mission:

It began with the launch of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), from Vandenberg Air force Base, California on December 14, 2009.  It was sent out into space to “survey the sky in infrared, detecting asteroids, stars and some of the faintest galaxies in space.”  It completed its primary mission in February 2011.  In December 2013, it was taken out of hibernation and re-purposed for the NEOWISE project (a four-year project to study Near Earth Objects (NEOs) including distant asteroids and comets.)  On March 27, 2020, C/2020 F3 (a retrograde comet with a near-parabolic orbit) was discovered by the WISE telescope.  By July 2020, it was bright enough to be visible to the naked eye under dark skies.  However, light pollution makes this problematic in many areas.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).  NASA image
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). NASA image/artist’s concept

Now, here’s the info on this really cool comet:

Comet NEOWISE was discovered as it came out of a dark part of the solar system called the Oort Cloud, an icy graveyard of ancient comets and asteroids situated billions of miles out in space.  It entered the inner solar system on its way towards the sun.  It reached its closest point to the sun on July 3, 2020.  It will be closest to Earth on July 23, 2020.  It should remain visible (maybe to the naked eye) through July.  It is estimated the comet’s nucleus (which happens to be one big ice ball!) has a diameter of 3 miles.  It has 2 tails.  The first is composed of gas and ions and appears blue.  The second is composed of dust and has more of a golden tinge.  There is also a reddish separation in the tail caused by high amounts of sodium.  The comet’s orbit takes 6,766 years with an observation arc of about 70 days.

NASA/Lauren Hughes photo
Comet Neowise (NASA/Lauren Hughes photo)

So, there we were searching the heavens, fearing we would never see this once-in-our-lifetime event, when VOILA! there it was!!!  We distinctly saw the head with an amazing tail trailing behind.  We really didn’t notice differing colors.  I guess we were too enchanted just witnessing this perfect comet!  It is beautiful!!!  We needed the binoculars to find it—either there was still too much ambient light or our eyes are just not strong enough to see it without assistance.  Our attempts to photograph the spectacular event were a flop!!!

Comet Neowise (NASA photo)
Comet Neowise.  This is exactly what we saw though the binoculars.   (NASA photo)

To view the NEOWISE Comet:

  1. After sunset, find a dark area. (We went out at 9:30pm and spotted the comet around 9:40pm).  We are in the Eastern Time Zone.
  2. Find the Big Dipper
  3. Look below the Big Dipper (hold your fist at arm’s length and, starting at the horizon, count up about 2-3 fists to spot the comet.
  4. We had to use binoculars to see the comet.  Could not see it with our naked eyes!!
  5. To take photos, you’ll need a really good zoom. We were unable to get decent photos with our normal Lumix camera.


Talk about witnessing history!!!  No one, in this lifetime, is going to see this again.  Nope, Comet Neowise will not return for 6,766 years!!!  Now, how amazing is that!!!

At least the NEOWISE Comet is enjoying a fun journey!!!

Lucky comet!!!!