How I Saw Comet NEOWISE (and maybe you can too)
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
As of mid-July 2020, one of the few good news stories of the year has delighted amateur and professional astronomers... but disappointed a lot of hopeful laypeople. The media likes to show spectacular comet photos that give the impression you can just look out your window and see a comet blazing in the twilight sky.
Photo Credit: James Younger
What's hidden in the fine print is that the photos use long exposures to capture light over a period of time. If you want to set up a time exposure to capture images like this, there are plenty of articles out there on astronomical photography. But with cheap binoculars or the naked eye, it looks like a fairly modest star with a faint streak of a tail rising to the right of it. It's still amazing that you can see a comet, and a good excuse to take a day trip.
Because of the pandemic, you won't have organized comet-viewing astronomy parties advertising good locations and sharing telescopes. Local articles about the comet haven't listed good places to view it from our light-polluted urban area, and I suspect that's so that people won't crowd them without social distancing. So I'm here to help you find a local spot to view the comet. I have the kind of friends who know the good astronomy places, so I got suggestions on Facebook; otherwise, search for local astronomy clubs and see where they have star parties. Due to the pandemic, the gates may be locked, so expect to use a turnout with a good overlook instead of a gathering place outside a park or observatory. (Official vista points are often closed for the pandemic, however.)
You need a very dark sky. The comet tail is not as bright as the Milky Way, so if you can't see the Milky Way, you won't see the comet. It's easy for light pollution to drown it out, or the remnants of twilight in the western sky. So if the local hilltop hangout for watching the sunset features a great view of the city lights instead of the Milky Way, that won't work.
Trees or hills above the horizon will block your view. The comet is setting in the west now, and by the time the sky is dark enough to see it, it's pretty low in the sky. It's below the Big Dipper, almost as far below as the Dipper is tall. If you can't see the sky that far below the Big Dipper, the comet will be hidden.
Get above any fog or smoke layers in your area. I saw it from a peak farther from San Jose, looking down on a sea of fog. On my way back, I stopped by another potential viewing spot closer to the city at a lower altitude, and the astronomers still hanging out at midnight said it had been lost in the haze. That was unfortunate, because this park was open 24/7 and had prepared the parking lot for socially distanced astronomy groups. Although I've been tempted to go to the coast to get a western view with the dark ocean instead of the bright city lights of the Bay Area, I suspect fog would interfere.
Binoculars will definitely help identify the comet. I searched that part of the sky and once I knew what to look for, I could see it with just my glasses. However, don't share binoculars or telescopes with people outside your household. This is not the time to be touching your eyes with random objects potentially contaminated with COVID-19. Maybe you could wipe them off, but I'd worry about damaging optical coatings with kitchen wipes while handling the eyepiece in the dark.
Make sure you have access until 10-11 p.m. Many parks close at sunset, or are only open to registered campers. Due to the pandemic, they're probably going to be strict about campsite reservations and park curfews. What worked for me, when they closed Fremont Peak State Park after sunset, was to relocate to a turnout along the road. I'd passed people pulled off the road on my way up, who were probably staking out good spots early.
Plan ahead, get there early enough the good spots aren't taken. You don't want to be driving some winding mountain road after dark, looking for an unoccupied turnout with a view of the Big Dipper and open sky below it. You don't want to crowd up with strangers at the good site and be so preoccupied with the comet that you forget about keeping your distance. Bring a picnic and plan to enjoy the sunset, the fresh air, and the sounds of nature after dark. (Don't make it a carpool, though; limit the excursion to your household only or caravan with another car or two. Not too many, or you won't fit in the turnouts.)
So you've found a place that meets these requirements and you're not sure how to find the comet. The star chart you looked up on the internet https://theskylive.com/planetarium has way too many stars that you can't see in the evening twilight, especially in the western sky near where the sun recently set. Here is how I found the comet:
Look for the Big Dipper. It's standing on its end, a bit north of where the sun set. If you're looking tonight, it's still quite a ways below the Big Dipper, nearly as far down as the dipper is tall. Aligned with its left side, there will be a faint star with a hazy streak going up and a bit to the right: Comet NEOWISE. You will probably need binoculars to see it clearly, but once you see it, it's easy to spot it again.
This article has some good diagrams of where it will appear in the next week, till July 26, 2020. https://earthsky.org/space/how-to-see-comet-c2020-f3-neowise
If you don't have transportation to a good dark sky location, you can still find a remote viewing party.
Here's one from the Chabot Space Center, a local Bay Area observatory and science center that does virtual viewing parties 9:45-11 PM Pacific Time every Saturday night instead of the usual open house during the pandemic. https://chabotspace.org/calendar/free-telescope-viewings/2020-07-18/
If you want more educational materials and an earlier start time, Slooh.com begins at 8 PM Pacific Time. https://www.space.com/comet-neowise-slooh-webcast.html