How To Share Comet NEOWISE With Your Kids

My daughter and I share Comet Neowise together on Saturday, July 11 at dawn. Bob King

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.

Comet NEOWISE cuts a beautiful curve on July 11 at 4 a.m. local time near Duluth, Minn. Theta Aurigae shines at upper right. Bob King

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.

Use this map to help you track down Comet NEOWISE in the early dawn sky. For many locations in mid-northern latitudes this is the scene around 3:30-4 a.m. local time. You can watch the comet in the morning sky through about July 18. Starting about July 12 it moves into the evening sky — see below for the evening map. Stellarium with additions by the author

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.

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

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.

Comet NEOWISE’s narrow, blue ion tail (left) was a bit more obvious this morning, July 11. Bob King

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.”

19 Responses

  1. Joseph

    We tried the opposite of your advice and attempted to get our older parents out for an early look at the comet. No luck. 🙂

    But the wife and I loved the views! Thank you for your map!

  2. Edward M Boll

    Comet still bright this morn, but notably dimmer, at 2.3 magnitude. At 70 minutes before sunrise my eyes could make out a hint of a tail but the head was getting quite dim.

  3. Karen M Carlson

    we are up near antigo wisc this week, what is the best time to head out to see NeoWise? thanks for the updates.

  4. Jack

    Bob, what’s a good spot in the Duluth area? We’re thinking the north end of Jean Duluth Rd. at Normanna or the south shore by Port Wing.

    1. Hi Jack,
      Yes, take Jean Duluth north and peel off on a side road that offers a vista to the north. You can also head up Co. 4 toward Island Lake.

  5. Randy Roff

    Bob…I was the man on the bike the other night! So fortunate to come upon you and Katie out there. Thanks for your blog and your excellence at teaching and making astronomy so understandable and accessible. My wife Wendy and I had a great viewing of Neowise last night around 10:45 from the road in front of our home. I even was able to view it from a bedroom wndow! So fun! Thanks again! Randy Roff

  6. Randy Roff

    Bob. I was the man on the bike the other night on the Lester River Road. So fortunate to run into you and your daughter Katie out there. Thanks for your blog and for your excellence in teaching and making astronomy so understandable and accessible. My wife Wendy and I had great viewing of the comet from the road in front of our home last night and I was even able to spot it from a bedroom window! So fun! Thanks again Bob. Randy Roff

    1. Hi Randy,
      That was a fun adventure for my daughter and I. Nice to meet you again, and I’m really glad you got a great view of the comet. Were you able to get the photo you wanted?

  7. Randy Roff

    Not really Bob. I’d need better camera and lenses, and oh yes, skills! Have to settle for what my daughter called “mental pictures”, and your great photos!

    1. Randy,
      Can you do a time exposure? All you need is about 10 seconds, ISO 800 and the ability to keep the camera still. You’ll also need to manually focus on a bright star as auto settings don’t work for stars.

  8. Julian Street

    Hi Bob,

    I filled the flask with hot chocolate, put a couple of granola bars in my camera bag and took my seven year old out at midnight Monday night.

    We had a great time, she learnt a few constellations (it helps she loves mythology), saw the comet’s milky way and a great ISS pass. I may have spent a bit too long trying to get a picture of the comet over our house though as her diary entry read “Me and daddy went to the field at 12am to see the comet, we had to wait” Whoops!

    Thanks as ever for your inspiration,

    Julian

      1. Julian Street

        Cheers Bob, I remember Halley’s when I was six so hopefully she’ll take her kids out to see the 2056 equivalent of Neowise too!

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