Last night I had the chance to go out to a bridge crossing the Chickahominy River, and view Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3), as it followed the sunset. What makes this astronomical event so wonderful is that the tail of the comet could be viewed by the naked eye.
We have not had something like this in 23 years, when Comet Hale-Bopp flew by in 1997, and we may not see anything like this again for another 10 years. I first got turned onto comets when I saw Comet Kohoutek just over the horizon in 1973.
I had a pair of binoculars, which helped me to spot Comet NEOWISE, around 10pm, below the Big Dipper, in the northwest sky. Cars passing occasionally on the bridge, with their lights, took away from some of the experience, but it was still really special. Unfortunately, I had no decent camera with me, but I really like this photo below taken by photographer Declan Deval, at Stonehenge, in the UK.
Comet NEOWISE is a 5-kilometer wide ball of ice, traveling 40 miles per second, leaving a trail of gas and other particles, that produce its tail, as it has recently gone around the sun, and is now on its way out to the far reaches of the solar system. For the next week or so, it will be making its closest approach to earth, so if conditions are right, it could become spectacular. But do not wait too long, as you will not see NEOWISE again for another 6,800 years.
Some other fun comet stuff below….
A brief church history note on comets: 17th century theologian William Whiston alarmed citizens of London when he predicted that a comet would crash into the earth (he turned out to be wrong). Whiston was one of the first researchers of comets, during the era of Isaac Newton, and his work in astronomy helped him to promote work in identifying methods for ships to determine their exact longitude at sea.
Whiston also sought to connect comets with events in the Bible, where he notably suggested that the Great Flood of Noah was caused by a comet, publishing a book on the topic that received praise by philosopher John Locke. Whiston suggested that the earth must have passed reasonably close to the tail of a comet, such that the atmosphere became soaked with moisture from the passing comet, thus triggering the great deluge. A similar proposal was also advocated by Edmund Halley, the astronomer who identified the periodic comet that bears his name. Whiston was also known for translating some of the works of Josephus, which are still in print. Whiston’s other theological ideas became suspect, however, as he was known to be an advocate of denying the doctrine of the Triune nature of God.