Iowans have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this week to see comet Neowise over the horizon before it disappears to the outer edge of the solar system.
And that’s not the only thing expected to light up the night sky this summer, offering a diversion, if only fleeting, from the pandemic that has kept so many cooped up.
The Perseids meteor shower will streak across the sky around Aug. 11-12, and satellites can be seen passing overhead if one knows where to look.
Comet Neowise, discovered only this spring, won’t pass by the Earth for another 7,000 years or so. The comet is named after NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.
Neowise will be at its brightest Wednesday, said University of Iowa Van Allen Observatories Manager Caroline Roberts. Then the comet’s light will dim as it moves away from the sun until it is no longer visible.
She pointed out that comets of this brightness pass the Earth only every five years or so, and brighter comets appear only every 15 to 20 years.
“This is the brightest one we’ve certainly had in a while,” Roberts said.
The comet sits about 20 degrees away from the horizon, Roberts said, and looks stationary from the ground.
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The best time to look for it is around 10 p.m. People should let their eyes adjust to the darkness for a bit before trying to find the comet, which is visible to the naked eye. People can measure 20 degrees with two fist lengths above the horizon.
She recommended getting away from city lights and having a good view of the northwest horizon — perhaps by going to Lake Macbride’s boat pavilion to see. Spectators can use binoculars to actually see water coming off the comet.
The Perseids meteor shower next month also will be visible to the naked eye, and binoculars are not recommended since no one knows just where they will pop up.
Meteor showers actually are very common, Roberts said, though only three or four a year are large enough for people to see. Small meteor showers are happening right now, but the Perseids will be visible because the earth will be passing through a particularly dense area of particles left over from passing comets.
Roberts recommends finding a place with little light pollution and without the sky being obstructed by trees or buildings. Look up at the sky and wait. The moon will be half full during the shower, which Roberts said isn’t the most ideal situation because of its brightness. But meteors still should be visible as flashes across the sky.
Satellites are constantly orbiting the Earth and being lighted up by the sun, so finding them is just a matter of knowing where to look. Websites and apps can help pinpoint space objects, and in the sky they slowly flash bright then fade while moving across the sky.
One source for information about spotting the International Space Station is NASA. Visit spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/index.cfm to find out how to spot it from your location.
Wedding photographer Michael Huang challenged himself to take a photograph of comet Neowise in downtown Cedar Rapids after having an easier time getting a good picture at his friend’s farm north of Alburnett. He couldn’t see the comet while downtown, but he knew where it was supposed to be so it took a bit of guessing.
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“I set the camera up pointing in the general direction then looked on the camera to see if I captured it after a long exposure,” Huang said.
Huang said that he’ll try and get out to take photos of the Perseids meteor shower if the weather cooperates, but no one can say yet if the sky will be clear.
“It all depends on the weather,” Huang said.
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