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Commentary: Looking For Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE comes closest to the earth on July 23.
Dan Patterson
Comet NEOWISE comes closest to the earth on July 23.

If you need a break from man-made entertainment, there’s still time to see Comet NEOWISE in the night sky over southwest Ohio. Get a pair of binoculars and scan the sky in the northwest just after sunset for a glimpse of the comet. It comes closest to the earth on July 23. WYSO aviation commentator and photographer Dan Patterson has been watching NEOWISE from Dayton.

Comet NEOWISE has been in the news, a welcome distraction from the COVID existence we are all living through.  The realities of astronomy in Ohio are often confronted with the haze and clouds of the Ohio summers.  Nonetheless, a lot of us fascinated with the wonders of the sky were out there, seeking a glimpse of a natural wonder.

Two weeks ago, getting up at 4 and 5 in the morning was a worthwhile effort.  From my driveway I hoped to see the comet.  Even though the skies were clear, the trees to the Northeast were too tall, however the coolness of the early morning was a pleasant surprise.  The coffee was just better out there stargazing at what was visible - the constellations of the summer sky, taught to me about 60 years ago at The Dayton Museum of Natural History.  I can always find the North Star wherever I am in the world, and from there I know my way home.

Location of Comet NEOWISE on the night of closest approach to Earth, July 23, 2020, as seen from the central U.S., facing west-northwest just after sunset. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.
via EarthSky

This week the comet shifted to the night sky, and I was out there.  The skies were clear, and the elusive NEOWISE should appear after 10PM.  I selected my spot and got there just at sunset...yeah, I was an hour early, but it was worth it.

I coated myself with bug spray, another necessity of star gazing in Ohio. The mosquitos lie in wait for unsuspecting casual astronomers.  Even so the cloud of bugs was apparent.

In the quiet of the gathering dusk, the sky transformed into a brilliant display of color.  With the sun below the horizon, the sky glowed orange. The spectrum on show as the warm colors gave way to the cooler tones of nightfall.  Eventually the stars and planets begin to appear, the brightest and familiar providing the bearings to find the others. 

As I was near the Dayton airport, there were some aircraft arriving and departing.  I began to look for what else may be out there while waiting for the comet.  The thought of what the Wright brothers had created and was now at heights and speeds that were considered out of reach in that hot summer of 1905 when they reached their goal...a practical reusable flying machine.  I chuckled and sprayed another cloud of bug spray around me, knowing that Orville and Wilbur didn’t have that luxury.

In the darkening sky, there were now jet trails visible.  Two, then three appeared so high in the sky that they were still in the sunlight etching lines headed Northeast and then another one headed almost due North.  I learned that the International Space Station would make an appearance that night at about the same time the comet might be visible, a skywatchers dream.  The multi level show was about to begin. An airliner took off and climbed into the sky.

That pilot was zooming through the sky passing through the thousands of feet above the ground . . . 1,000 . . .  3,500 . . . headed to 20,000 feet and above. The jet trails already there cruising at 35,000 feet, marking the directions of the compass in the sky.  Exactly as predicted, the ISS appeared in the Southeastern sky, a brilliant light moving very fast toward the Northeast.  Those guys are 200 miles up there, a long way from Huffman Prairie.  Dayton is about 1,000 feet above sea level.  The airliner's at about 5 miles above that and then the space station at 200 miles - accomplishments worth considering on a clear summer night.

The International Space Station in the night sky.
Dan Patterson

Looking back to the Northwest, finding the familiar Big Dipper and then looking below and very faintly there it was, the comet.  I took many photos, my camera on a tripod, time exposures of 10 seconds and more.  While the camera’s timer was doing the work I had the chance to really look into the heavens.

Comet Neowise is 70 million miles from us.  That is some altitude!  The ice ball is about six miles wide, and the tail is greater than the distance from the Earth to Mars.  It won’t be visible here again for 6800 years. 

The 1905 Flyer never flew much above 100 feet over the ground.  Any of us can now fly in the atmosphere at five miles, the astronauts at 200 miles and an Ohioan was the first to walk on the Moon 250,000 miles away.  The majesty of the sky continues to summon us, the comet just the latest beacon  - inviting us to follow.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com