Steve Herrlinger: Comet Neowise a thrill to watch and photograph | TheUnion.com
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Steve Herrlinger: Comet Neowise a thrill to watch and photograph

I’m a science geek/nerd. I obtained chemistry and engineering degrees, and have enjoyed giving chemistry, physics, and engineering demos to students of all grades. I was in the local astronomy club and got a 10-inch telescope. My high school was fortunate enough to have a planetarium, and the astronomy teacher was happy to see my genuine enthusiasm for astronomy. He used to leave the keys in the control console, and I learned how to operate the star projector. I liked joking with him, so I would rotate the projector upside down by 180 degrees, but because it was symmetrical, he didn’t notice what I had done. When he started his star talks to visiting schools, he’d say look to the east, and you’ll see the sun rise. But after my adjustment, the projector showed the sun coming up in the west, making him look silly.

When I joined the USAF, I did research on rocket propellants as a chemist, so I really was a rocket scientist. Later, as a flight test engineer, flying in 86 different types of military aircraft, I really enjoyed clear skies while flying high above the clouds (at night) in 86 different types of aircraft. I love looking at the sky, and Comet Neowise is a thrill to watch and photograph every evening. I still have the bug.

Comet Neowise is named for the orbiting satellite which discovered it: the “Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. This satellite was launched to look for asteroids and other objects which might be on a collision course with the Earth. If you haven’t seen Comet Neowise yet, you still have a chance; it will still be visible for several days, and it’s fairly easy to find, if you have patience. Neowise made its closest approach to Earth on Wednesday. It continues to move away from the sun and Earth, so it will become much dimmer and will eventually fade from sight. To find comet Neowise, it helps to be away from ground lights. Best viewing starts around 9:45 p.m., and goes through about 10:15 p.m., when it sets. Comet Neowise is in the northwest part of the sky, very close to the Big Dipper.

Everyone should know how to find the Big Dipper and the North Star; it’s a life skill which can be very handy. The Big Dipper looks like a big cooking saucepan with a handle. (To find the North Star, follow the two stars at the end of the cup of the big dipper, over to the North Star, Polaris.) To find Neowise, look below, and to the left of the pan of the big dipper.

Everyone should know how to find the Big Dipper and the North Star; it’s a life skill which can be very handy.

Comet Neowise is dimming, so binoculars really help see detail, but it is still visible to the naked eye now. You can use averted vision, which is where you look a few degrees off to the side of a dim object, and it will appear a little brighter.

Don’t bother trying to get a photo of the darkening comet now with a cell phone camera; the lens is not large enough to let in enough light. For my comet photos, the best shots were taken with my Nikon D3400 digital camera on a tripod, with a 50mm f1.4 Nikkor manual lens, f1.4 to f2.8, 2-6 second exposures, with iso set to 6400 or 12800. The settings change as it gets darker after sunset, so you have to bracket (vary) your exposures at different shutter speeds, apertures (f-stop lens settings), and iso camera light sensitivity settings.

If you look closely at my photos, especially in a darkened room, you can even see two tails. There is the main bright whitish dust tail, made of sun-vaporized water and dust particles, but you can also see the much dimmer bluish ion tail. The ion tail always points directly away from the sun, because it is repelled by charged solar wind particles from the sun. The brighter dust tail is less affected by the solar wind, so it curves in a slightly different direction, due to the comet’s orbital motion. And as comets recede from the sun, they fade, and return to an inert icy body without any tail. That is the destiny of Comet Neowise, which will return to its glory in 6,800 years. Hopefully there will soon be another newly discovered comet to again grace us with another spectacular light show!

Steve Herrlinger, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.), lives in Nevada County.


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