Something as wonderful and rare as a bright comet should be shared with as many people as possible. I understand it’s not easy getting up at 3 a.m. and driving to a place with a view, but I’ve yet to hear from anyone who felt put out after they made the effort to see comet NEOWISE. I was eager to show my daughters so I asked them to join me for a look. One was unable due to work but the other agreed. She normally stays up all night anyway. I like to tell her she already has the key qualification to becoming an amateur astronomer.
We rose this morning at 3 and set off to see the comet. Once out of the car she looked around the sky and bingo, she found it just like that. It appeared as a ghostly streak of light with a bright, point-like head. With the naked eye alone I could trace the tail for 4.5°, equal to 9 full moons. In binoculars and photos it extended all the way to Theta Aurigae (see map below), a distance of 8°. While the head is fading the tail just grows and grows, making the comet a more impressive sight now than a week ago when it was officially brighter.
How fortunate to see a bright comet. And how rare. The last gem was Comet PanSTARRS in 2013, but it was nowhere near as easy to see as NEOWISE. The most comparable recent comet was McNaught which turned up in the winter sky in 2006 en route to a fantastic appearance in the southern hemisphere in 2007.
If you have kids, now is the time to take them out and show them the comet. You even have half a moon to help light your path. Tomorrow it will pass near the planet Mars, another point of wonder in the sky. Make it a special occasion with hot chocolate or iced tea depending on your climate. Kids rebound quickly after losing sleep plus they’re almost always up for an adventure. My daughters were.
Expect surprises, too. Where we live the mosquitos are bad on warm nights. They’re understandably hungry like every other living thing. From their perspective we arrived just in time for breakfast. After their peskiness nearly derailed our little expedition we settled in for a walk along the adjacent road, watched NEOWISE fade in the brightening sky and found relief. We also met up with a man out on his bike in search of the comet. It was an opportunity to share our mutual enthusiasm for sky-watching.
Use the maps provided to help you find comet NEOWISE. If you’re bringing young children ask them later to make a drawing of what they saw with crayons or colored pencils. What a nice keepsake that would make. Talk to them about comets. People used to be afraid comets were portents of disaster. Now that we know what they are — small asteroid-like objects but made of dirty ice instead of rock — we can appreciate them for their beauty. Every time a comet goes around the sun some of that ice vaporizes in our star’s terrible heat to form a tail that lights up like the dust that rises from a dusty road. And it’s currently shining from over 80 million miles (129 million km) away. What a big place the solar system is with room for one star, at least eight planets and billions of comets and asteroids!
Many have asked when is the best time to see NEOWISE. From most locations look between 2¼ hours to 1 hour before sunrise. If I had to pick a sweet spot it would be 3:20 a.m. to 4 a.m. local time. Whether going by yourself or with the little ones don’t forget the bug repellant if you live in the humid, eastern half of the U.S. And If you need another reason to go out consider that the comet won’t return again for another 6,800 years! For this particular object, it’s definitely a “once-in-a-lifetime.”