As the brightest comet in nearly a quarter of a century, you’d think that catching a glimpse of the huge cosmic ice-ball otherwise known as C/2020 F3 “Comet NEOWISE” would be easy.
After all, many had reported seeing it in the pre-dawn sky, and it’s a pretty decent size at 3 miles wide.
As it travels through space at a rate of 144,000 miles per hour, nearly 70 million miles away from earth, Comet NEOWISE has become famous across the Northern Hemisphere, making appearances above a vast array of iconic landmarks.
So, given it won’t be back for another 6,800 years or so, I figured I should make effort to take a look myself.
There are now so many tools out there to help navigate the night sky, it makes locating the comet relatively easy, in theory, as it sits just below the “pan” of “The Big Dipper” (as it’s known in the US) or “The Plough” elsewhere.
This is the pattern that forms part of the Ursa Major, or “Great Bear” constellation, and once you’ve found that, you’re all set. Just draw a line from the “handle” of the pan, through the base, and you pretty much get to Comet NEOWISE sat just below.
If anything, I found myself looking for a golf club and ball, by the time I’d drawn it all up…
A little bit of advance planning done, and knowing that we had limited darkness hours during the comet’s fleeting visit, I opted to try for the “pre-dawn” that everyone seemed to be talking about.
Given I have the Jurassic Coast on my doorstep while we’re limited in where we can travel right now – plus the fact that we needed to look to the north to find it in the night sky, heading to the southern tip of Portland Bill seemed to make a lot of sense…
Well, that was a mistake – it seemed.
With a safety margin of just nearly 2 hours before sunrise, I hadn’t banked on the huge lights coming from the Ministry of Defence station just up the hill from the lighthouse – along with the beginnings of dawn washing out the lower parts of the sky – in exactly the direction I needed to shoot.
Regardless of the distortion from the ultra-wide lens when up-close to the lighthouse, this one was going to be a bust. I could see Venus in the sky (to which NEOWISE should have technically been parallel) but if it was anywhere in that band of light, it was almost certainly washed out.
Add to that, the upwards angle and higher ground behind, the comet would need to be higher in the night sky, regardless, if I had any hope of seeing it from here anyway.
So, if the northern sky was going to give me lemons – it was time to wait it out and shoot for lemonade at sunrise…
…which turned out pretty nice.
But, however picturesque Portland can be, that wasn’t the goal – so it was back to the drawing board (well, iPad, anyway).
Sometimes it’s much better to get a view of exactly what you’re looking for a little closer to home (and in a place somewhat less windy than on the exposed rocks of the Jurassic Coastline). Despite the 3am start, it just felt right to give it another go that night.
After finding the lighthouse was a bust in the morning, I’d used the spare time before sunrise to take a shot with my iPhone at the top of the hill – looking towards Chesil Beach, the Fleet and Weymouth in the distance.
While the comet wasn’t there for me to see with the naked eye just then, at least that location would be the right vantage point to see it, if and when it next made an appearance.
For attempt 2, I’d decided that nothing could really beat a quick check from the garden before venturing out, tired, to the windy hill to shoot at midnight.
I still couldn’t quite make it out with the naked eye, but every now and then a glimmer – a “tail”, I guess – appeared just below The Plough. It was worth grabbing the camera, just to see if that was indeed the comet.
While the nearby streetlights affected our night vision, that was definitely it (just above and to the right the passing plane – evidently flying little closer than Comet NEOWISE at 70 million miles away).
One final check – I mean, just to make sure this was the right comet:
And it was – the perfect line-up of angles, the “golf ball at the end of the club” – so time to head up the hill.
When your town is laid out before you at night, in the cool air, surrounded by no other people or sounds, it’s a pretty epic view regardless.
Add to that feeling, the sight of a comet travelling at 144,000mph among the stars above, and it becomes tuly incredible.
Where the low angle and light of dawn had caused the comet to fade in the early hours of the morning, the dark of midnight had brought it back to life. And yes, it was indeed visible with the naked eye (although you may need to look slightly to the side of it to catch where it is, first).
We watched comet NEOWISE for a while. A calm, serene, celestial body – floating through our galaxy with grace – but then I remembered the science…
In reality, its journey is violent, loud and rapid, as something like 13 million swimming pools worth of water and roughly the same amount of dust and rock, go hurtling towards the sun, leaving a gassy tail behind as it heats up on the way.
Pretty amazing, when you think about it – that for this brief moment in time, we can witness it happening before our eyes.
Taking time to look properly at the angles of the stars before us, I started to think.
Although the exact location shifts a little to the East and towards the horizon as the night progresses – with the angle I saw from the garden, coupled with the location of The Plough in relation to NEOWISE – surely there must have been at least a hint of it from Portland Bill that morning?
I checked the patterns – it was consistent. (Well, for tonight, anyway – as it does shift each day, as it makes its way in orbit.)
So, what if I took a closer look at those lighthouse images from before…
Forget the distortion – forget the light obscuring it a little – there was NEOWISE!
It HAD been there with us in the early hours of the morning. It just wasn’t as obvious as I’d expected it to be.
The lighthouse wasn’t the right location, especially with the angle required to look up to the sky and the fact that the comet is now lower in the sky towards dawn. But yes, it had been there the whole time.
Which made me wonder – my iPhone had been able to pick up The Plough in the sky when I stood on the top of the hill before…
…so that tiny, tiny, dot of light just to the side of it – Had it managed to see NEOWISE, too?
I guess we’ll never really know. (Although, I guess I kind of do…)
Comet NEOWISE is with us for a few more days in July.
It’s now higher in the sky around 11:00pm – 1:00am. It then dips down before rising slightly back up to the North East just before dawn.
So if you haven’t seen it yet, do make the effort to go and take a look.
And after that brief spell of star-chasing?
One of the big things I’ve learned during this pandemic…
For those of us who travel so much – sometimes it’s important to appreciate the view from your own doorstep. It can be just as incredible as anywhere else on the planet.
Thank you, universe… 😎✨🇬🇧 #Neowise