How great a comet is Comet NEOWISE, which has come from so far to say hello?
“It’s better than good, but maybe not great,” said astronomer and blogger Bob King. “Maybe we need a new classification. Pretty great.”
Monty Robson, director of the John. J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford, isn’t so particular.
“Any comet you can see with your naked eye is great, if you can ask me,” Robson said. (Robson’s wife’s eyesight is pretty great, too. She picked NEOWISE out of the night sky last week, then grabbed the household binoculars for a closer look.)
No matter what, it’s a rare blessing for comet-starved eyes.
“It’s wonderful,” said Cliff Watley of Ridgefield who has helped organize sky-watching trips at New Pond Farm in Redding.
“Every clear night, I’ve been following it,” said Bill Cloutier, one of the leaders of the McCarthy Observatory.
“It’s not been seen before,” said Diana Hannikainen, observing editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.
NEOWISE will be in the night sky this week. But it will start to dim soon as it pulls away from the sun. The moon is also waxing, so there will be a wash of moonlight in the night sky in the coming days to hide it. So NEOWISE seekers must act soon if they want to see it.
First find a dark spot in the world, away from light pollution and with a good view of the northwest horizon — a hilltop, a golf course, an unlit ballfield.
Go there about 9:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on a clear, cloudless night with a pair of binoculars. Look to the northwest and find the constellation Ursa Major — which looks like its common namesake: the Big Dipper. Scan the sky with your binoculars below the lowest star in the dipper — the bottom of the drinking gourd — and over to the left.
With any luck, you should see NEOWISE — a soft cotton ball with a beautiful dust tail behind it. It’s not grand. But it’s lovely.
“It’s delicate,” said King who has written about NEOWISE in his Astro Bob blog site at www.astrobob.com
NEOWISE gets its name from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a space telescope with the mission of sighting comets and asteroids approaching earth. It first saw NEOWISE in March and so got the naming rights.
There hasn’t been a great comet here since Hale-Bopp, which lit up the night sky spectacularly in 1997 for weeks on end. There have been promising candidates. They’ve either dimmed or disintegrated as they neared the sun.
NEOWISE, however, has surprised everyone by brightening up and hanging around. It first made an appearance in the pre-dawn hours in early July. It’s now seen at a much more convenient time for observation, in the evening sky.
Astronomers have estimated its orbit at around 6,800 years. If any hunter-gatherers did see it in its last go-round in the fifth millennium, they left no record of the sighting. So this is the first time anyone has seen NEOWISE plain — as a comet, not an omen of ill portent.
“They used to scare the heck out of people,” King said.
Its home is in the Oort Cloud, the vast circle of billions of comets and icy objects that may surround our solar system like a bubble. The Oort Cloud is very far away — about 9.3 trillion miles from the sun. For reasons unclear, its objects get drawn into our vicinity and we get to see something very ancient from very far away.
It’s best to see NEOWISE yourself. But astrophotographers have captured some stunning shots of it hanging over the horizon, tail straight up behind it.
And people have been gathering, informally, unplanned, to get a look and take pictures.
Watley said he met a mother and her two children at Ridgefield High School, where the town is saving money by turning off the parking lot lights.
“They were looking through binoculars and all of a sudden, they said ‘We found it! We found it!’” Watley said.
Hannikainen said she went to an athletic field and found about 100 comet seekers to get a look at NEOWISE, not the evening news share of pandemic and police action.
“After all we’ve been through, you got a sense of people wanting to share the experience,” she said. “It was dark. People couldn’t see your face mask. They just came over to talk.”