Thursday, 16 July 2020

Comet NEOWISE Salvages 2020 For Astronomers

Comet NEOWISE as seen from Tsehum Harbour in Sidney, B.C. at 11:15 p.m. July 19, 2020. Chris Gainor photo.
Like everyone else, amateur astronomers have spent the last four months suffering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. I wrapped up my two-year term as President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) in June at a Zoom meeting instead of our annual General Assembly, which was supposed to take place in Vancouver.

My final three months in office involved working with our staff to shift our activities from in-person to online formats, or cancelling them. The RASC's public outreach events, which often involve members of the public putting their eyes to telescope eyepieces, are a definite no-no in the era of COVID-19. The RASC’s 29 Centres across Canada have quickly adapted to the restraints the coronavirus has put on our hobby.

With some suddenness and little warning, however, a new comet has appeared in our skies and made 2020 notable for astronomers for a happy reason. We will remember 2020 as the year of Comet NEOWISE.

While comets routinely fly into the inner reaches of our solar system, most are difficult to find, even with telescopes. The last major naked eye comet to light up our northern skies was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.

Astronomers and many people with only the most casual interest in astronomy love comets, and we have lived through many false alarms over the last 18 years. For example, Sky and Telescope magazine featured comets on the cover of its July issue in the hope that Comet ATLAS, discovered late last year, would break the long draught of naked eye comets. Just as the issue was going to press, Comet ATLAS fell apart as it neared the Sun, as many comets do.

The NEOWISE space telescope, which has been used to discover many comets, most of them of little interest to most observers, was used to discover Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE on March 27, too late for a mention in the July Sky and Telescope. This time, the comet lit up as it approached its rendezvous with the Sun on July 3, and it held together as it swung past the Sun into northern skies. Although Comet NEOWISE is fading slightly as it moves away from the Sun, it is moving closer to Earth until July 22, when it will be about 103 million km away from us. It will fade at a faster rate as it moves away from Earth after that date.

Comet NEOWISE first became visible in Canada last week shortly before sunrise low in the northeast sky. I first saw it last Saturday shortly before 4 a.m. Soon it was visible after sunset in the northwest. This weekend it will be visible all night in Canada as it heads toward the Big Dipper and gets higher in the sky.

Already astronomy-related social media are full of comet photos. NEOWISE is not only the first major naked eye comet in 18 years, it is the first one to appear since most amateur astronomers made the switch from photographic film to digital photography. The result is a large number of amazing photos of this comet, even at this early date, from legions of skilled amateur astrophotographers. Even newcomers to astrophotography like me have been able to obtain photos of this elusive visitor.

In the next few days, Comet NEOWISE will be relatively easy to pick out in the northern part of the night sky below and to the right of the Big Dipper. Keep an eye out for jaw-dropping comet photos in astronomy-related social media and publications. Very soon NEOWISE will fade from sight as it moves out of the inner solar system. It won’t be back for 6,800 years.

We won’t see this comet again, but it will leave behind memories that will give us astronomers something to smile about whenever the topic of 2020 comes up.

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