How strange to witness a sky race, one between an incoming storm front and a wandering comet … a heavenly phenomena named Neowise that is said to appear in earth’s viewing path every 7000 years or so. My seat for this apparent and unique dead heat was the front seat of my car where I hid from swarms of mosquitoes.
We had been here the previous night after a friend posted a picture on social media. This was after 11 p.m. when normally I would have been into my second hour of sleep. So we arose from our comfort, pulled on some outdoorsy clothes in the event there might be a crowd on our gravel road, and headed to the top of the prairie where a neat little wetland has survived being drained for corporate agriculture.
Last winter I discovered the nighttime beauty of this little patch of prairie water after returning from a distant foray to capture northern lights. What makes it a delightful spot is not just the proximity to my little farm, for it is literally across the road from my upper prairie, but even more conveniently there is seemingly little if any “light pollution” from the north. No visible roads or security lights … which was not the situation that same night on a wetland a few miles north when during the best flurry of Borealis activity some fool came driving down the gravel road adjacent to ruin the long exposure!
We were just as fortunate after crawling from bed, for everything you could ask for … almost … was there for both our humanistic and photographic enjoyment. First of all, Comet Neowise was clearly visible just above the tree line. Secondly, there was neither wind nor clouds, so we had both a perfect view and even a clear reflection in the mirrored waters of the wetland. And, finally, no pollution from errant lights from beyond!
So, what was the problem? Upon a serious and frantic search, my tripod that is normally in the car simply wasn’t. For some odd reason there was a cushion for a lawn chair, so that was laid across the hood of the car so I could hopefully secure the camera for a long exposure. Ten seconds at the very least, and perhaps 30 seconds at most … something I cannot do “hand-held.” Back in my youth I could do up to a three second hand-held with a very wide aperture, though no longer.
While the pillowed security helped immensely it was still a distant cry from having a secure tripod. I loved my imagery and the quaint though faint reflection of Neowise in the placid waters. Meanwhile some of my photographic friends were posting pictures of absolutely perfect Neowise pictures .. from the mountains of Oregon to the hills above our nearby beloved Bonanza prairie.
This time I would be prepared. Oddly enough the tripod was discovered collecting dust up in my studio-gallery, so that was gathered. I charged the battery and made sure the correct setting was made on the camera. For the “techies,” this meant finding the BULB feature in the manual settings, and on advice from the youngest naturalist I know, moved from my mid-range zoom to a 20 mm wide angle lens.
With that accomplished I decided to do a bit of research since this passing of a noted celestial celebrity had completely gone, well, over my head. If Julia Ahlers, my friend who posted the original picture, hadn’t gotten us out of bed I might not have even known there was a flyby! So this is the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp in 1997, and is apparently visiting earth’s sky for the first time since those folks were pushing elephant-sized quarried rocks in building the pyramids in the Egyptian dessert! Astronomers estimate that Neowise is basically a ball of ice five kilometers wide … a shade over three miles in width. That was the estimated size of the dinosaur killer that squarely hit earth some 65 million years ago.
So Neowise? What’s in a name? Here you go, for it’s an acronym for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer … or Neowise.
Neowise drifted from a dark part of the solar system known as the Oort Cloud — an icy graveyard billions of miles out that is filled with ancient comets and asteroids. It shot into the inner solar system as astronomers watched as it passed the sun at a distance closer than the planet Mercury. Although it survived this close encounter with our sun, it’s the sun’s rays that are making it visible even to the naked eye.
Visible, yes, but like with northern lights, it helps immensely to make long exposures to draw out the magic! On this subsequent night, like a hunter loaded for bear, I headed up the hill after the sunset to await Neowise in the northwestern sky. This is somewhat of an aversion for me. Typically when these special celestial moments appear in the heavens they become shrouded by clouds. Every single time. Even the last solar eclipse was a cloudy affair for me. Not only am I typically shaded by dense cloud covers, I now must contend with the knowledge that to see Neowise again I would need to live another 6800 years or so. Fortunately for the healthy among us the brightly blessed Hale-Bopp, which as you may recall came through 23 years ago, will make another appearance in 4380. That is merely 2360 years from now!
As I awaited darkness, peeking through the clouds of mosquitoes eagerly eying my choice red plasma just out of reach inside my car windows, the streaky fingers of a weather front began inching across the northwestern sky. I’m told there is nothing longer than a watched clock 20 minutes before quitting time. If that’s infuriating you should watch a race between an approaching storm front and darkness with the appearance of a wide ball of sun-enlightened ice with an amazingly long tail that comes through once every 7000 years as the finish line.
Every competitive parvocellular moment was greeted with glee as first one, then a second, star appeared with the glacial-like shrouding of darkness. Peeking first over my shoulder to the southern skies, which were gathering some serious darkness, then through the passenger window to the northwest to notice that the front was moving more rapidly than the darkness. It was about three minutes to quitting time when just a faint hint of Neowise began to peek through, and now mere “inches” from the emerging edge of the incoming front.
I clamored quickly to climb from the car to grab the tripod with attached camera and set up as rapidly as possible. For whatever reason the race was gathering speed, so much so that in the end I was able to capture three ten-second long shots before Neowise was covered by the front. Three shots!
This morning I awoke to a completely overcast sky and noticed rain had come overnight. Word is that Neowise will be around for another week or so, rising ever higher into the sky as it passes us into the oblivion of galactic evermore. That is almost as good as being told by the astronomers there is no way possible that this erstwhile glob of ice will hit earth and rid us of worldwide nationalism and a treacherous pandemic. I guess we should be as thankful for that as we are hopeful for clear skies between now and then.