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Comet NEOWISE offers rare nighttime sky show

Ottawa Citizen logo Ottawa Citizen 2020-07-14 Blair Crawford
a sunset over some water: Ottawa amateur astrophotographer Andrew Symes captured these pictures of Comet NEOWISE through a break in the clouds near Carp on Monday night. © Andrew Symes Ottawa amateur astrophotographer Andrew Symes captured these pictures of Comet NEOWISE through a break in the clouds near Carp on Monday night.
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Ottawa area skywatchers can enjoy a rare sight this week as the best and brightest comet in a generation appears in the night sky.

Comet NEOWISE made its slingshot turn around the Sun on July 3 and is on its way back to the Oort Cloud on the edge of the solar system where it originated. Until this week, you would have had to get up in the pre-dawn hours to see the comet and its long fan-like trail, but since Monday NEOWISE is visible in the evening after dark.

“It’s one of the comets of the decade,” said Ottawa’s Gary Boyle, who writes the The Backyard Astronomer column for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. “It’s an amazing sight and everyone should have a look.

“Sometimes you can only see them with a telescope, but this one is a ‘Wowee!'”

NEOWISE, so-called because it’s a “near-Earth object” discovered by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, was first discovered on March 27. Comets are frozen balls of dust and gas that orbit the sun. It’s hard for astronomers to predict how bright a comet will glow and many of them break up as they approach.

“We’ve had other comets that were duds. We had Comet Atlas and Comet Swan that looked very promising earlier this year and they just disintegrated,” Boyle said. “Comets do that. But this one hung on.”

 Astronauts aboard the International Space Station photographed Comet NEOWISE on July 3 as it rounded the Sun. © NASA, ISS Astronauts aboard the International Space Station photographed Comet NEOWISE on July 3 as it rounded the Sun.

NEOWISE is the best and brightest comet visible in the northern hemisphere since Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, he said.

“Everyone on Earth can see this comet. It’s summer time. It’s right near the Big Dipper. All the ducks have lined up in a row for it.”

The comet isn’t as bright as Hale-Bopp, which was roughly the size of Toronto compared to NEOWISE, which is about four kilometres across. Photos taken of NEOWISE from the Ottawa area show its spectacular tail of dust and debris. But the tail can be hard to see with the naked eye so it’s best to use binoculars for viewing.

The comet can be seen low in the northwest sky after dark and will gradually appear higher and higher in the coming days and can be seen immediately below the bowl of the Big Dipper.

NEOWISE makes its closest approach to Earth on July 22, passing a scant 100 million kilometres away (that’s 260 times further away than the Moon). It will gradually fade as it recedes.

“There are reports that it’s actually getting brighter and the tail is getting even longer,” Boyle said. “When comets get brighter it’s usually because they’re starting to break up and new material is being released. Hopefully that’s not what’s happening here. It survived the Sun, so it should stay intact.”

Comet buffs can learn even more about NEOWISE on Wednesday at 3 p.m. when NASA streams a briefing and public Q&A on its website at nasa.gov .

And if you miss seeing Comet NEOWISE this time, no need to worry. It’s coming back — in 6,800 years.

bcrawford@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/getBAC

 A chart showing the path comet NEOWISE will take through the night sky in the coming days as it passes beneath the bowl of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. Courtesy Gary Boyle A chart showing the path comet NEOWISE will take through the night sky in the coming days as it passes beneath the bowl of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. Courtesy Gary Boyle
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