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Looking Up column: Comet NEOWISE still visible under Big Dipper

Peter Becker
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Lecia Engle, who read the last Looking Up column online from the Columbus Dispatch, sent this picture she took of Comet NEOWISE on July 17 from Madison County, Ohio.

Have you had a chance to see Comet NEOWISE? Described as the finest comet in years, visible with just your eyes, is gradually passing underneath the Big Dipper.

The comet is also gradually fading as it moves away from the sun. You should be able to see it this weekend, although you may need binoculars.

Look northwest between about 9:30 and 11:00 p.m. You will need a clear view, and of course avoid the distraction of commercial, street or house lights as much as possible.

The moon reaches first quarter Monday, July 27, giving more light to the sky, but fortunately, the moon is quite a bit away in the sky.

This past week, Comet NEOWISE had a second- or third-magnitude head, appearing like a fuzzy star, with a dimmer but distinct tail about three to five degrees long.

To the naked eye, the dust tail stretches out like a line on the sky, pointing to the upper right as seen from mid-northern latitudes.

Binoculars give a wonderful view. It is even more spectacular in a telescope, the larger the better. But don’t let not having a large instrument stop you. It is a rare sight to see a comet with eyes alone and even one that is impressive in a simple pair of binoculars.

Discovered last March, the comet rounded the sun on July 3, within the orbit of Mercury. The hot sun melts the ice, letting loose the encased dust and gas; pressure from the sunlight pushes the dust and gas into separate tails, reflecting the sunlight back to us.

It passed closest to the Earth on July 22, at a distance of 64 million miles. Imagine how huge this comet really is, to be so bright and with a tail this long, seen so very far away.

The frozen nucleus of the comet is only about three miles across, enshrouded in a coma of escaping dust. From that, the dust is spread out into a tail that is at least 10 million miles long.

Yet NEOWISE is considered an average-sized comet. How spectacular it appears to us has much to do with its nearness.

How has your experience been observing the comet? Your reports, and pictures if you took any, are welcome and may be used in another column.

I’ve seen Comet NEOWISE a few times so far, but like everyone else, it depends on the weather. On two nights the sky was very clear, and the comet was impressive.

Lightning bugs have added to the beauty of just being out in the backyard, studying the comet. One evening someone in my village had a large fireworks display when I was out, looking at the comet. Fortunately, the pyrotechnics were in the southwest and not the northwest!

Then one night I had company: two skunks poking around the grass for food!

Through a telescope, I could see faint stars shining through the tail. In the course of an hour, I was able to detect in the eyepiece the comet’s sideways motion as it slid closer to a couple of dim stars.

Comets add extra celestial drama and wonder to the sky. The very rare, bright comets are the ones most people remember. Most are dim, but many of these are in reach of a modest telescope, of say 3-inch and larger aperture. Popular magazines on astronomy give details, although their websites offer more up-to-date breaking news about a comet that has been found.

Those equipped to take long exposure telephoto photographs have had stunning results, showing the color and extent of the comet.

It’s interesting to think that most meteor showers are left-over comet debris, and the regular showers that occur each year have been traced back to the comet of origin. The Earth passes through the orbit of the comet and catches the meteoric dust.

One of the strongest and most well-known meteor showers is the Perseid shower, which peaks Aug. 11, 12 and 13. The meteors originate with the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

In 1994, astronomers observed Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted the planet Jupiter. The comet had broken up and punctured the cloudy layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere, leaving what looked like scars. They were visible in even a small backyard telescope.

While looking northwest for the comet, be sure to turn around and enjoy the brilliant planet Jupiter rising in the east, with Saturn, not quite as bright, to the lower left.

Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.

This adapted star chart of Ursa Major shows the Big Dipper, and the approximate positions of Comet NEOWISE on July 25-27, at lower left. The first "X" at right is for Saturday, July 25; Sunday is next and Monday is at left. The chart also shows how the Big Dipper stars point to Polaris, the North Star. Look for the comet with binoculars about an hour to an hour and a half after sunset, facing northwest.