The clouds FINALLY cleared after weeks of gray skies this morning at Shenandoah National Park (SNP) allowing me to see and photograph Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) at Thorofare Mountain Overlook, elevation 3,595 feet. And I must say it was worth the wait as you can see in my pics!
During the SNP season I normally am giving astronomy and space presentations at Big Meadow Lodge and Skyland but Covid-19 forced me to cancel as did the SNP National Park Service for its annual Night Sky Festival. But SNP is open so it was simply wonderful to drive up and spend time with billion year old granite under the stars once again. I hadn’t been to SNP since November of last year…way too long.
Comets are left over debris from the formation of our solar system and they are on the prowl at any given time. It has been 23 years since the Northern Hemisphere had a GREAT COMET - one that is bright and spectacular to see - which was Comet Hale Bopp.
Another spectacular comet had just graced Earth’s skies the year before and was the last comet I had imaged at SNP using color slide film no less! It had a very long tail and I visually watched it move across the star studded sky as minutes passed by. As I did so I could understand why our ancestors associated comets with evil and doom. During Hale Bopp a cult group in San Diego committed mass suicide in order to join the “Mother Ship” they thought was in the comet.
For the US, NEOWISE rises above the northeastern horizon in the predawn sky at about 4 a.m. EDT. If you have a clear view of the horizon with no bright lights, trees or structures, you might be able to see the tail rising above the horizon. The bright, starlike nucleus will follow shortly thereafter. Look at the provided star charts to find brilliant Venus, then to the left (North) find bright Capella - it is the brightest star in that area of the sky which helps. From Capella look at a slight downward angle to the left towards the horizon. You should see NEOWISE. Binoculars really will help in your search.
The Comet will enter the skies at dusk mid-month and SHOULD become far easier to see. Only time will tell as comets are just like cats - who knows what they will do.
If you want to try and photograph the comet you will need to take an exposure of several seconds which means bracing yourself against something or using a tripod. Take several pics and adjust camera settings as you go until you have an image that fits the bill.
Sky Guy in VA