Something new in the night sky

This simplified map shows the night sky as it will appear in south Texas on July 21, 2020, after sunset. The view is toward the northwest horizon. Comet NEOWISE should be a binocular object (possibly a naked-eye object) just below the Big Dipper. 

We were sitting on a hill in the western part of the county watching the sunset. It was nearing 8:30 p.m., and the daytime birds were giving out their last chirps and going to bed. The nighthawks and pauraques were beginning to call and to start their nighttime hunts for food. We had chosen this spot for the unobstructed view of the horizon to the north and west. Specifically, we were observing a spot just to the north of where the sun was to set. Our target was to appear there once the sun’s light had faded.

We waited. We watched. Would that darn thing ever set? Finally, the red-orange orb dipped into the haze on the horizon and edged below the rim of the land. But an orange glow persisted both to the north and to the west. And at the horizon, there was a thick band of brownish-orange smudge. What was that? Dust? Haze? Smog? Whatever was causing the smudge, it was dimming our chances to see our target.

Our target was a comet. It was new to the night sky. It had only been discovered on March 27 this year. Its name is Comet NEOWISE or C/2020 F3 NEOWISE. Comet NEOWISE was pretty dim at first, but by July it had brightened enough to be visible to the naked eye. (And to be spectacular through binoculars!) Until July 11, the comet was a pre-dawn celestial attraction. Around that date, the comet moved behind the sun and was not visible for several days (at our latitude). Then it came back as an early evening, low-to-the-horizon object.

We tried to spot the comet during the early morning hours of the days leading up to July 11, but South Texas’ summer dawns are usually cloudy or at least hazy. Something to do with the humidity, I think. So, no luck seeing it before it went around the sun. That’s when we decided to make a concerted effort to find it as soon as possible when it became an evening object.

We consulted our personal planetarium “Stellarium” (a desktop app for visualizing the sky) to get a map of the northwestern night sky at our latitude. It showed us right where to look, just under the Big Dipper and directly above the horizon, for the nights following July 14. Stellarium also noted that to see the comet, we’d need to be watching just after sunset. And the sky would need to be as dark as possible. 

Well, the sunset and its afterglow lingered as we patiently watched from our hill. The minutes ticked by, but the glow and the haze continued. We panned the horizon with our binoculars. Thirty minutes past sunset: It should be dark enough to see the first stars, but even the brighter stars were proving elusive. We waited. We scanned the whole sky and finally: the first star! It was Arcturus, and it was almost directly overhead. Then, the star Vega appeared. And on the eastern horizon, Jupiter shone brightly. However, the northwest horizon was still yellow. It wasn’t looking good for us to see Comet NEOWISE this night. 

Using a wonderful app, GoSkyWatch, we located the Big Dipper, other stars, and the comet against the still-too-bright sky. If it would just get a bit darker in the next 10 minutes…… We waited, but the app showed the comet slowing sinking even closer to the horizon. Due to the earth’s rotation, that part of the sky was setting. Our little window of time to see the comet this night was gone.

However, we were not worried. Comet NEOWISE is rising higher in the evening sky each night. At the same time, it is getting closer to earth. On the night of the 22-23rd of July, it was be at its closest. If it stays at its current brightness, it should be visible, maybe even with the naked eye, for at least a week. Still, to see it in all its glory, including its splendid double tail, you should use binoculars. 

You really should make an effort to see this special celestial visitor. All the photos I have seen show it to be quite a pretty comet. And you won’t get a second chance to see Comet NEOWISE. It won’t come back for 6,800 years. So, don’t wait. Go watch now!

Texas Master Naturalist Columnist: Brush Country Backyard

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