A clear night sky is ideal for viewing the comet NEOWISE, which is visible with the naked eye above the northwest horizon. Photo courtesy, Ben Stewart

A clear night sky is ideal for viewing the comet NEOWISE, which is visible with the naked eye above the northwest horizon. Photo courtesy, Ben Stewart

Comet is a treat for skywatchers

Big Dipper’s bottom two stars point to comet

A comet will continue its public appearance — visible with the naked eye, which is rare — near the northwest horizon over the coming week.

Alice Koning, community outreach co-ordinator at the Kerry Wood Nature Centre, said often astronomers can watch comets through their telescopes, but such magnification devices are not usually accessible to the general public.

She said the NEOWISE comet came from beyond Neptune, the eighth and last planet from the sun.

“You can kind of think of comets as leftovers from when the solar system formed, so one reason we like to study them is because they are like this pristine laboratory of the early solar system,” Koning said.

She said a couple of other comets predicted to be bright enough to see with the naked eye within the past year ended up breaking up or fizzling out. NEOWISE will start to dim after July 23 as it gets farther from the sun and Earth.

“It’s at the limit of what we would classically call a naked-eye object. It’s going to be a little bit of a tricky one. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see it on your first try.

“My recommendation would be to choose any evening between now and July 23 when it’s not cloudy — that’s going to be your main foe.”

The comet was discovered on March 27 on the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, hence its name, NEOWISE.

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She said a clear view of the northwestern horizon and a dark sky are required, and binoculars make it a lot easier. The bottom two stars in the Big Dipper roughly point to the location of the comet.

“Travelling far out of town is nice, especially if you want to get those good pictures. But for the average person, find a place where you’re not standing directly under a street light. That will be enough for most people.”

She said comets are like dirty, icy snowballs that are several kilometres wide. Millions, or even billions, exist out past Neptune, and sometimes, they orbit into the inner solar system.

“It’s only when they come into the inner solar system, and close to the sun, that they start to get those famous tails. Comets are beautiful.”

And the debris comets leave behind can create another light show in the sky, Koning said.

“When Earth crosses over a past comet’s dirty leftovers, that’s where we get our meteor showers.”



szielinski@reddeeradvocate.com

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Kerry Wood Nature Centre