Editor’s note: A version of this has been previously published on the author’s website.
The great comet of 2020 — technical name, comet C/2020 F/3 NEOWISE, nickname just plain NEOWISE — is gliding back on its orbit into the depths of the solar system, and as NASA points out, is “not to be seen again for another 6,800 years.”
Although it has disappeared, it leaves behind uncountable thousands of awed Earthlings who saw and/or photographed it.
Comet Neowise was discovered March 27 by an orbiting telescope, NASA’s Near-Earth-Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The telescope, originally called WISE, was built by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. The purpose of the instrument, according to USU, was to “map and catalog the sky with far better sensitivity and resolution than previous space-based infrared survey telescopes.” Launched in 2009, it was renamed NEOWISE in 2013 when NASA put it to work looking for potentially dangerous asteroids and comets that approach close to Earth. NEO stands for Near-Earth Object.
The comet passed Earth at “a harmless distance of 64 million miles,” says NASA, allowing astronomers to carefully gauge its composition and orbit. “From its infrared signature, we can tell that it is about 5 kilometers (3 miles) across,” Joseph Masiero, the telescope’s deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, adds in an article on nasa.gov.
Comets are famously known as dirty snowballs, masses of ice and dust frozen together. When one of them approaches the inner solar system, the sun evaporates some of its material.
The arrow-straight stream of charged particles, or ions, fluoresces blue; it’s called the ion tail or the plasma tail. The broader dust tail can look orange, yellow or white.
So much for the technicalities! Now for the fun part: the recollections and photographs by a few of the members of the Utah Astronomy Club, among many who chased the interloper.
George A. Pandoff, who lives in Roy, won the 556-member Utah Astronomy Club’s photography contest for July with his surreal image of Neowise over Fremont Island.
Pandoff, a transplant to Roy after finishing his military career at Hill Air Force Base, said the Fremont Island/NEOWISE view was “one of those few times where a photographer’s vision perfectly materializes. I have photographed other comets, but none with the sheer beauty of NEOWISE.
“For a week, I had been pursuing Comet NEOWISE while surviving on 2-3 hours of sleep (my wife was incredibly patient). Each night, the photographs were better than the previous one, but it was not the photograph I had imagined. ...
“Finally, July 15th at 10:33 p.m., the image I had been chasing materialized. The water had become still and perfectly reflected Fremont Island’s silhouette. Overhead, the stars looked down from the heavens as we gazed in awe at NEOWISE’s glorious main tail. And at that moment, I saw it. This was my vision — I pressed the shutter.”
Jody J. Patterson, principal investigator at Montgomery Archaeological Consultants and a resident of Moab, used a Canon DSLR with an 18 mm lens to capture a view of Neowise drifting beside Monitor and Merrimack buttes near Canyonlands National Park. He posted it July 8.
“From my house in Moab, trees and the canyon rim blocked the view considerably so I headed out of town a bit,” Patterson said. “I didn’t expect it to be as bright as it was when I first saw it, but it was brilliant. I could make out the tail with the unaided eye and with binoculars it was simply gorgeous. I sat on an outcropping of sandstone for a good long time before I remembered to take out my camera.”
Shelby Stock, Salt Lake City, a dark sky programming seasonal employee with Utah State Parks, took a haunting photo of the apparition hovering high above the Great Salt Lake on the evening of July 14. That may have been the first time Neowise provided a good look in the night sky; earlier, as seen from Utah, it was a morning object. Her vantage point was Great Salt Lake State Park and Marina.
“I love the color contrast of the sunset, the water and the blue sky in this photo,” she said. “This image also presents nearly what we could see with our naked eye! This was a pleasant surprise to me. I thought that surely the comet would be washed out in the ubiquitous light pollution of the Salt Lake Valley.”
Paul Ricketts, Salt Lake City, interpretive specialist at the University of Utah’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and director of the U’s South Physics and Willard Eccles Observatories, photographed the comet at Fremont Indian State Park around 11 p.m. on July 18.
Besides the rock art panel below the comet, what makes the photo a lucky shot, he said, was “that I was able to capture a meteor in the upper center of the photo. Comet Neowise was stunning from this dark sky location! The ion tail was bright and prominent. Neowise as a whole seemed to stretch across the sky. Definitely a sight to see!”
Tyson Chappell, associate professor of biology at Utah State University Eastern, Price, made two outstanding photos of Neowise . One of which was taken the night of July 14, and he remarked, “Neowise and a fireball streak toward the setting sun.”
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to try to shoot NEOWISE, but I’m glad that I made it out last night. I was able to watch it for 30 minutes prior to its passing behind the horizon,” Chappell said the next day. “The lights from Price, Utah, illuminate the foreground.
“I am usually not so very lucky as to capture fireballs like this awesome meteor. Quite remarkably and strangely, sitting here now, I realize that the last amazing fireball that I was able to capture was also when I was shooting Pinnacle Peak. Now that is a strange realization. Since these frames were only a few seconds in length, it is fantastic that I was pointing in exactly the right direction and just barely caught the meteor 1/2 second before the exposure ended. Perhaps I should call this place ‘The magic meteor mountain.’”
Last and certainly least is my view of Neowise.
After several unsuccessful attempts, I drove to Antelope Island State Park on the night of July 17, arriving at the causeway over the Great Salt Lake just before it would have closed to outbound traffic.
Along the causeway, cars were stopped at the edge of the road and people were standing next to them with cameras on tripods.
Peering desperately for a long time through the camera, and also just looking, I couldn’t see the thing. I called to people who were talking about the comet. A woman with exceptional vision (compared with mine) walked down from a bluff and — keeping a proper distance — pointed just below a puffy, lighter cloud. I still could not see it.
Taking pictures in the general direction, at last I was surprised to find a small vertical streak at the left edge of the camera’s back screen — a streak unlike a star trail. It had to be the comet. I adjusted the aim and took pictures.
I kept the tripod steady and shot a succession of exposures of 15 seconds with the zoom telephoto set to 116 mm. The comet was so dim in the dense atmosphere that to show anything, exposures had to be that long — long enough that stars streaked a bit. I knew that would happen.
Eventually I needed to stack 16 images to get a view of the comet — and even then, the photo is mediocre.
Still, while it’s not much to look at and nothing like others’ pictures shown here, at least it is a photo I took of comet C/2020 F/3 Neowise.
Joe Bauman, a former Deseret News science reporter, writes an astronomy blog at the-nightly-news.com and is an avid amateur astronomer. His email is email@example.com.