It’s a once in a 6,800-year opportunity.
Around 11 p.m. Wednesday night, the newly discovered Comet Neowise will sparkle across Spokane’s night sky.
Neo is not only one of just a handful of comets this century that is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye but also the brightest comet to pass by Earth in 23 years. And it won’t be coming back this way for 6,800 more.
Like all comets, the three-mile-wide Neowise is made of ice and dust from the very beginning of our solar system, said David Syphers, a professor of physics at Eastern Washington University whose expertise is astronomy. Now it’s careening closer to the sun and into our line of sight.
Most comets spend billions of years orbiting slowly at the frozen outer edges of the solar system before something strikes them and pulls them out of their orbit, slingshotting the ball of ice closer to the sun, Syphers said.
“There’s a sense of connectedness that this is a remnant of the same big cloud of stuff that formed the Earth I live on and the sun that gives us life,” Syphers said. “It’s this little fragment from the deep history of our solar system. I can see that little speck out there and feel connected to this vast process that’s far greater.”
In the sun’s heat, some of the ice vaporizes into a trail behind the careening ball, carrying material from the comet with it, said Joe Bruce, a local NASA solar system ambassador who volunteers to conduct educational outreach. The sun illuminates that vapor and dust, creating the tail that is characteristic of a comet.
To catch a glimpse of the ancient comet, any location where you can see low on the horizon will work. But for the best experience, head north of Spokane where light pollution from the city won’t obstruct your view, Bruce said.
Face due north and think of the sky as the face of the clock. Look toward where the 11 o’clock position would be on the clock. Holding a fist out at arm’s length, so it is anchored on the horizon, the comet will be a little higher in the sky than your fist, Bruce said. Another approach would be to look about three fists below the “bowl” of the Big Dipper, according to Sky and Telescope.
The comet will rise higher in the sky throughout the month, Bruce said, but the best days to view the comet during the evening will come today through Sunday, according to Space.com.
Bruce said an expensive telescope is not necessary to observe the night sky, especially with a comet this bright, but binoculars will bring out more detail. For Bruce, also the Director of Children’s Ministry at Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church, focusing on the details helps him connect to something bigger.
“It’s something that’s positive. You’re getting out, getting fresh air, it’s taking your mind off of some of the stresses,” Bruce said. “Last night with my telescope I got the chance to get in really close to the comet and I forgot everything else.
“Everything else I’ve been thinking about this week – the virus and everything – it went away.”
Like Bruce, Syphers said astronomy appeals to his sense of wonder.
For him, learning about the origin of a comet doesn’t take away from the mystery but adds to it, Sypher said.
“We’ve slowly and with a lot of effort been able to understand what these things are,” Sypher said. “It seems like an amazing achievement that we can look in the sky and say, ‘We know what that is.’”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.