Naturalist’s View of Comet NEOWISE

Being stuck at home has been motivation for many people to find new things to do. The uptick in people watching birds during COVID19 has been well documented, as in New York Times’ The Birds Are Not on Lockdown and More People Are Watching Them or Portland Press Herald’s During coronavirus, backyard birding takes flight in Maine but for this pre-COVID birder, I’ve been dabbling into other flying things, near and far. The near, being moths and other insects, but more on that later, for now follow Maine Audubon’s Instagram where Jada Fitch‘s amazing moth paintings are being shared each day for National Moth Week. The far being things beyond Earth’s atmosphere. I wanted to use this blog to share a few really cool things that can be seen in the night sky right now.

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE

You’d probably have to be living under a rock to have not heard about Comet NEOWISE by now. There are tons of articles online with recommendations on how to see it, but like most national phenomena, or anything up in the sky, knowing exactly where to look is challenging. I had a great viewing session on the evening of 15 July, so I wanted to share a few tips here to help Mainers get a view of this comet.

WHEN: You’ve got through this week until the comet really starts to fade, so I’d recommend looking on your first clear evening after reading this. The comet made its closest approach to the sun on 3 July and will pass Earth (still 64 million miles away) on 22 July. It is only when comets come close to the sun, and warm up, that they start emitting the gas and dust, which forms the “tail”. As you’ve probably heard, going out after sun is best: On 15 July, the “official” sunset was 8:21PM, and I could first see the comet at 9:38PM. As it got darker, the comet became more prominent and was probably best seen just before 10PM. The comet does move, ever so slowly, down closer to the horizon, as the Earth is rotating, and for that reason it isn’t visible all night. You do have another shot just before sunrise but that ‘window’ seems to close faster.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WHERE: As I experienced, if you are in a good spot but not seeing the comet, it may just be too early. Find a spot where you have an unobstructed view to the northwest. I found one by searching around on Google Maps and noticing the Sebago to Sea Trailhead parking lot off Route 35 in Standish. This vantage point over Sebago gave a long clear view towards the horizon, but I’ll warn anyone going there that the traffic on 35 does not help – frequent headlights passing by doesn’t allow your pupils to dilate as much as you’d like for optimal viewing. The chart above, from NASA, does a nice job orienting you: You should look in the sky below the Big Dipper (actually in the Lynx Constellation). From Standish, it appears a bit farther north (to the right) of the Big Dipper than most charts I’ve seen.

HOW: The comet is visible with the naked eye, but most birders will find themselves already equipped with great tools for viewing. I took the photo above with a 35mm lens on a camera with a 1.7x crop sensor, making it effectively ~60mm, don’t worry about the math, the point is that a 50mm lens is considered “close to the human eye”, so you can see that NEOWISE is fairly large just to the naked eye. This photo was a 10 second exposure, so it will not look this bright to your eye, but still quite obvious. Now for anyone with tools like binoculars, you should be able to get stunning views with 8x or 10x magnification. The photo below was taken with a 300mm lens, which on my camera gives the equivalent of close to a 10x binocular. This photo was a six-second exposure (note the star trails) so again, it is brighter than you should expect from the naked eye. Using a spotting scope will really give a great view, if you can find it in that small field of view.

Other things to look for…

This is actually a great week to be looking at the night sky. We’ve got a New Moon on the 20th, which will help make faint objects easier to see. Also on the 20th, Saturn is at opposition, meaning it “will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun”, or in birder-terms, it’ll be really cool to see. The rings are visible through a spotting scope. From our perspective, Jupiter is very close to Saturn, and was at opposition last week so definitely worth looking for this bright dual-planet view in the southeast sky.