• Jules-Pierre Malartre

Comet Neowise a sight for sore eyes


PHOTO BY JIM HUGHES

Comet Neowise photographed by Vaudreuil-Dorion resident Jim Hughes in Saint-Clet on July 14 using a digital camera, tripod and telephoto lens.

As the pandemic continues to put a damper on many of our summer activities, it’s encouraging to see that nature can come up with a few surprises to keep us entertained.

What was at first an astronomical body that could only be seen using powerful professional telescopes has now turned into a spectacle that can be enjoyed by everyone – Comet Neowise, named for the orbiting telescope that discovered it – it has been gracing our skies since it was discovered March 27. Comet Neowise is brighter than originally predicted, so it’s a great opportunity for the public to see something that might very well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This week, as an added bonus, you no longer need to wake up early to see the comet. It can now be seen in the late evening sky if you look up in a general North-Western direction. It should be easy to spot – look somewhere between the crescent moon and the Big Dipper. Depending on light pollution and the weather in your area, you will be able to see the comet, even though it might only appear as a faint, diffuse cloud.

Vaudreuil-Dorion resident Jim Hughes caught a beautiful photo of the comet on July 14. “We went out to Saint-Clet and it was very dark and flat. So I knew I would have a pretty decent view of the comet from there,” Hughes told The Journal. “We could see just a fuzzy patch in the sky that didn’t look like a star.” With binoculars, he was able to confirm the fuzzy patch was Comet Neowise and he took the picture with a camera on a tripod. He had to use an exposure time of a few seconds to get details of the tail, and the results are spectacular.

While it is visible to the naked eye, the comet will be even more spectacular if viewed with binoculars or even a low-powered telescope which will reveal more details, including the bright nucleus and the dust tail. Simply put, comets are ancient balls of ice and rock. Just like planets, comets orbit the sun. When they come around the sun, comets get warmer, and brighter as their ice turns into gases that make up the curved, white/grey tail that comets are more familiarly known for. (Comets actually develop two tails. The more elusive blue ion tail is more difficult to see.)

PHOTO COURTESY WWW.SKYSAFARIASTRONOMY.COM

Location of Comet Neowise in the night sky on July 23. (Image generated on SkySafari 6 Pro for the iPad with kind permission from Simulation Curriculum — see www.skysafariastronomy.com.)

While it came closest to Earth on July 22, this is still a great time to catch Comet Neowise. Hurry up though, comets sometimes lose some of their brightness so there might not be a better time to see it. Comets are also known to break up sometimes, which might turn into an even bigger spectacle (like famous Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 back in 1992 that broke up in several pieces as it plunged into Jupiter’s upper atmosphere). We may not get that big a show from Comet Neowise but it is a rare opportunity to witness one of the most awe-inspiring astronomical events that can be seen with the naked eye.

While in ancient days comets were often seen as the harbinger of terrible events, under the light of our evolved understanding of nature we can simply view this spectacle for what it truly is: an amazing display of nature’s grand beauty, and a sight for sore eyes and spirits that need to be lifted in these difficult times.

If you’ve never seen a comet, make sure you don’t miss out on this opportunity. Other comets might swing by the sun in coming years but they are rare, and Neowise won’t be coming back for thousands of years.

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