Space Station Marathon And Comet NEOWISE Just Won’t Quit

The space station makes a pass early this morning (1:03 a.m.) at the same time a firefly wriggles into the view. Lightning from a distant thunderstorm is visible at the horizon. Bob King

Pile it on! Comet NEOWISE, Jupiter and Saturn and now the International Space Station (ISS). You may have already noticed the station cutting across the night sky over the past few nights while you were you out comet-watching. It’s that extremely bright “light” moving from west to east, taking about 5-6 minutes to cross the entire sky. Through early August, observers in mid-northern latitudes can watch anywhere from 2 to 5 passes over a single 24-hour period about an hour and a half apart.

In mid July the space station’s orbital track is closely aligned with the day-night terminator. The astronauts see the sun 24-hours a day (midnight sun effect) while viewers on the ground get to see one pass after another. Bob King

Each year on either side of the summer solstice in either hemisphere, the space station’s orbit and Earth’s day–night terminator (the line that separates day and night) nearly align. Like seeing the “midnight Sun” at the Arctic Circle on the first day of summer, astronauts and their craft bask in sunlight 24/7. Some skywatchers stay up all night to see every pass in what’s dubbed an ISS Marathon. Nothing’s required except the ability to remain awake and see all ISS flyovers during a 24-hour period. For my city, July 17 fits the bill with 5 passes: 12:15 a.m., 1:52 a.m., 3:28 a.m., 9:49 p.m. and 11:26 p.m. Maybe next year we’ll do T-shirts.

You can plan your own marathon by going to Heavens Above and clicking on the blue link Change your observing location (if you haven’t already added it before). Then find your city, add it and you’re set. Next, return to the opening page and click the ISS link. You’ll see a list of passes for the next 10 days. Details for each pass include start time, altitude (45° is halfway up the sky), direction to look and end time. Click on any line and it will link to a map showing the space station’s path across the sky for that particular flyover. All times shown are local times for your location.

The space station is consistently the brightest artificial satellite in the sky because it’s also the largest. If you have a telescope try to manually track it using a low magnification of 40-70x. Note its direction of travel and then point the scope slightly ahead of its position and watch for this big bird to fly through your eyepiece. Once you’re successful, move the scope to follow the ISS and enjoy the sight. You won’t believe your eyes because you can actually see a shape and details like the orange solar panels. No kidding.

Comet NEOWISE hangs over downtown Duluth, Minn. with city lights reflected in Lake Superior last night (July 15). Bob King

We talked about Jupiter yesterday. I noticed it beaming brightly last night. In contrast the comet looks big and foggy, except for its bright head, similar to the appearance of the Milky Way. I swatted a lot of mosquitos while photographing NEOWISE from Duluth’s Park Point, a large, populated sandbar that extends from the downtown and wraps along the far western edge of Lake Superior.

The comet shares the scene with the Big Dipper (upper left) around 1:15 this morning (July 16). At the time, NEOWISE had reached its lowest point in the sky called the nadir. Details: 70mm focal length, ISO 800, f/2.8 and 60-second exposure on a tracking mount. Bob King

Because of light pollution the comet wasn’t as pretty from the city as the country, but it was still easy to see with the unaided eye and a sweet sight in binoculars. Despite fading a bit NEOWISE shows no other signs of weakening and remains a magnificent sight from a dark sky. The moon will return to brighten the evening sky about July 23 so we have about a week of true darkness left to relish this celestial spectacle before it’s compromised by moonlight.

The Big Dipper and stars of Ursa Major the great bear will help you keep track of Comet NEOWISE when it shows up in the evening sky. This map depicts the sky around 10-10:30 p.m. local time with positions marked every 3 nights. Stellarium with additions by the author

NEOWISE is easy to find using the Big Dipper. Go out about an hour and a half after sunset (around 10 to 10:30 from many locations) and look about one fist up (10°) in the northwestern sky. The head of the comet and a bit of the tail are visible in twilight, but the full glory of the tail won’t be seen until darkness sets in.

6 Responses

  1. Edward M Boll

    I forgot about the Space Station this morn. It was at about it’s best mag minus 3.8. It was over 70 degrees high. It gets progressive worse through the 21st, dimmer and lower altitude. I got good views last night of Jupiter and Saturn. I could see the big Dipper but low in the north clouds. So I am still trying my seventh look at Neowise. It in my mind has crossed into dim naked eye viewing now no brighter than mag 2.4.

  2. Brandon Stahl

    Hi Bob!

    Longtime listener first time caller. I’m up in Fergus falls this weekend — what’s the best way for us to see the comet?

    Hope you’re doing well and enjoying retirement.

    1. Hey Brandon, great to hear from you. Go north of city lights and and bring binoculars. It’s easy but sort of faint
      -looking with the naked eye, so binoculars bring out its character better. Look about a third of the way up in the NW sky at 11 p.m. naked eye. You can’t miss it. Best from then till around 12:30. If clouds threaten you can see it as soon as 10:30 p.m.

  3. Edward M Boll

    Comet near 2 hours after sunset still semi bright with the naked eyes. The bright head was much more notable in binoculars. About 15 degrees high, comet msg 2.5.

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