There’s always a comet in the sky

This photograph of the NEOWISE comet, with the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the foreground, was taken at around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, July 17, from the public pier in South Beach. The NEOWISE comet is pictured in the night sky on Tuesday, July 21, overlooking Newport’s Nye Beach. The photograph was taken at Don and Ann Davis Park, with the light from the Yaquina Head Lighthouse visible in the background. (Photos by Walt Duvall)

“There’s always a comet in the sky,” Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Space Science Director Jim Todd explained. “We’re at the right place at the right time to see this particular comet up close and personal,” he said of the comet, NEOWISE, observed streaking through the July night skies. Most comets are just too faint to be seen.

The comet, discovered by National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft on March 27, reached perihelion, its closest point to the sun, on July 3.

The comet’s nucleus “is about three miles across and covered with dark particles left over from its formation near the time of the birth of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago,” OMSI related in a July 15 update on the comet, citing NASA.

“We’re at an advantage because this comet is large, and it’s bright. This is a really great opportunity to see a beautiful comet,” Todd told the News-Times on July 17. 

NEOWISE was about half as bright on July 16 as it was on July 11, Todd said. He warned that the best time to view the comet has passed, not wanting viewers to be disappointed if they go look for the comet at this point. Binoculars or a telescope will be needed, he said. The comet is on its way out.

To try to catch a last glimpse of NEOWISE, OMSI advised, “About one hour after sunset, when you will find it just above the northwestern horizon as the twilight fades into darkness, look for the comet near the bowl of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle above, and from there perhaps to its west.” It was also noted that comets are unpredictable.

“This comet, like many comets, come and go. It was bright enough to be seen by just about anybody,” Todd related to the News-Times. “The opportunity to see a comet is more frequent than an event like the 2017 total eclipse of the sun. Comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake happened back to back,” he noted.

The comet NEOWISE did not pose a danger to the earth, Todd said. “(The spacecraft NEOWISE) did its job, finding the comet. We’re fortunate that the earth is a small target,” he observed.

Todd noted there will be many more exciting opportunities to observe phenomena in the night sky. OMSI’s Facebook page has a dozen space science videos, including Backyard Stargazing, Phases of the Moon, Dark Sky Objects and ISS Sightings and Satellites to get you started stargazing.

Todd offered additional resources: Spaceweather.com, theskylive.com and inthesky.org, and he noted the Perseids meteor shower coming up on Aug. 11. 

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