Tips for spotting Neowise in the Hudson Valley

Comet Neowise, photographed by the author’s friend Matt Francis near Sedona, Arizona on July 18.

It’s the best comet since Hale-Bopp graced our skies in 1996. And it’s easy to find. From any location with an unobstructed view toward the northwest – just right of where the sun set – look about a quarter of the way up the sky at 10 p.m..

The comet is directly below the Big Dipper. It’s a naked-eye object, although it looks far more detailed through binoculars. The optimum time is now, because the moon is returning to the evening sky starting on Friday, July 24, and will fatten and brighten each evening thereafter, until it truly diminishes the contrast behind the comet after this weekend.

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So these are the final optimum evenings. You need clear skies, but it also mustn’t be too hazy. Thick haze will completely hide the comet. Thus, seeing it may take a bit of patience, but it’s worthwhile. 

Another tip: Our region’s unpolluted skies provide ideal comet-watching conditions, but if you’re south of a major population center, for example south of Kingston, then the artificial sky-brightening of such light pollution means you’d do better to drive somewhere else. One perfect spot is the Ashokan Reservoir walkway, where views to the northwest are open and dark.  

Comets are balls of dirty ice only a few miles across. When they come close to the sun, as Neowise did a couple of weeks ago, the ice turns to vapor, which streams off to release tons of trapped dust particles along a million-mile-long  path, and this is the tail. Through binoculars, you may be able to see not just this comet’s bright dust tail, but maybe even, on its left side, the much fainter blue plasma tail caused by atoms that are actually glowing on their own, thanks to stimulation by the sun’s ultraviolet energy. It’s all amazing stuff.

Keep looking each evening at 10 p.m., and hope for cloudless, dry conditions before the moon returns and gets too bright.

And remember, comets do not zoom across the sky. They hang motionless. Don’t expect to see any motion except for its slow sinking toward the horizon at the same rate at which the stars move, thanks to the earth’s rotation.

Finally, if the name seem strange, it’s because this is the rare comet that was not named after a human discoverer. It’s only the second bright comet to be named after the scientific instrument that found it, in this case NASA’s infrared telescope named the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. This comet name is an acronym for that orbiting observatory.

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