Dazzled by a Once in a Lifetime Event

Astronomy | Science | Neowise

Once in 6800 years

image by Steve Roberts, Christina Lake BC Canada — July 2020

This summer, I’ve been managing a campground on a small lake in western Canada. Tonight we wandered out onto the dock in the dark, armed with a flashlight and an air horn. There was a reason we were armed in such a strange way.

Geese

There’s a flock of geese that comes in the night and camps out on our swimming dock. Actually, this year there are several flocks. So far we’ve counted 60 geese.

The thing about geese is they’re messy. They poop frequently and the texture is green and slimy, due to the copious amounts of grass and lake weed they consume.

Each morning before the campers wake up, we check the docks to see if the geese have paid us a visit. If that unfortunate event has happened, our first duty of the day is shovelling the mess into a bucket and dumping into our compost. Then we use the bucket to sluice off the docks, scrubbing any problem areas.

One of our tactics is to catch them late at night and warn them off with a one two punch of a bright light and an air horn blast.

We were standing on the dock listening for the telltale honk honk and happened to look up.

To our surprise, there was a comet in the night sky.

It was visible to our naked eye, a bit blurry through the atmosphere, but clearly a large object with a long tail.

NEOWISE

Comets are slow moving relative to the Earth. They aren’t like a shooting star, which moves across the sky in a few seconds. My Grandmother always said to make a wish.

Comets have a long trail of light called a tail and they are usually visible for several days because they are so large and far away.

We woke up the other campers and stood out on the beach, taking turns looking through our binoculars.

Later we discovered our comet is named NEOWISE.


This comet was a recent discovery, found on March 27, 2020. NASA astronomers found it using their NEOWISE space telescope.

(NEOWISE is short for Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.)

With such a long name, it was surprising to me that we could see it with our naked eyes.

NEOWISE last visited us during the 5th Millenium, around 6800 years ago, before the written word.

It would have been noticed as a message from the gods, marking an auspicious birth, or a foretelling of success in a battle. There are many historical records of comet observations, preserved in carvings or paintings over the centuries.

Halley’s Comet is a well known visitor, returning every 75 years, allowing us the chance to observe it twice in a lifetime. This one won’t be back for a long time.

Observing NEOWISE

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, and can see the stars of the Big Dipper, you may be able to find this comet in your evening sky for the next few nights. (July 17th, 2020)

  • It’s best if you can be away from city lights with an unobstructed view of the northwest sky.
  • Bring binoculars if you have them.
  • Just after sunset, look below the Big Dipper in the northwest.
  • Look for the fuzzy ‘star’ with a tail.

If you can, get outside and catch a glimpse. You won’t have another chance for 6800 years.

As we stood there marveling at the night sky, there was a subtle honking in the distance and we returned to our earthly mission. Goose hunters on the prowl.


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