Remember March 27, 2020? It was the day the New York Times reported 3.3 million new unemployment claims and the LA Times wrote “The epicenter is now the U.S.”
It’s also when scientists first spotted the comet NEOWISE on its course past Earth (coming in close at just 64 million miles away) and back toward the outer reaches of the solar system.
While much of the world was busy locking down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, astronomers were busy looking up to the skies.
“In its discovery images, Comet NEOWISE appeared as a glowing, fuzzy dot moving across the sky even when it was still pretty far away,” said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator at the University of Arizona, in an article published by NASA. “As soon as we saw how close it would come to the Sun, we had hopes that it would put on a good show.”
Mainzer’s prediction turned out to be correct, although not everyone who set out to get a look at the comet was as lucky as Justin Yee, a National Parks Service employee who captured a stunning shot of NEOWISE behind the silhouette of a great horned owl in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was perhaps Yee’s photograph that drew dozens of stargazers to the ridgeline at the Topanga Lookout Trailhead last Thursday night, July 22, hoping to catch a similar scene themselves.
“A little bit below the bottom lip of the big dipper, we’re seeing the comet,” Ben Pace, who drove out to the mountains from the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles, described. “Its tail is pointing upward. It’s a little faded, there’s some light pollution, but yeah, it’s here.”
Although it was difficult to see without the help of binoculars, Pace and his small group of stargazers (which was led by Rich and Mimi Press from Beverly Hills, who brought both a telescope and binoculars) were joined by other groups—a few couples with blankets laid out, a gathering of six or seven 20-something- year-old men illuminated in a car’s tail lights, a handful of small families with young kids—all hoping to catch a glimpse.
“Who knew there were that many amateur astronomers? But I guess in the times of quarantine, we’ll take any excuse to get out and get some fresh air,” Pace said.
That was the case for Cody and Azadeh, who came up to the mountaintop from the San Fernando Valley. When asked if quarantine was a motivation for their stargazing, Cody, who declined to share his last name, admitted the mountains were not his first choice.
“If the bars were open, I’d probably be at a bar right now, but because they’re not, I’m definitely gonna come out here,” Cody said. “This is pretty great. It’s developing an appreciation.” And despite the serenity of the cosmos, boisterous conversations floated from other spots on the ridge, as groups of friends took the chance to catch up in the relative safety of a breezy summer night.
Although it’s now well past the prime time to spot NEOWISE—and the next chance won’t come around for nearly 7,000 years—there are other cosmic events to enjoy later in 2020. In mid-August, the Perseid meteor shower will return; AccuWeather predicts it will be “much better than the one from 2019.” That will be visible Aug. 12-13, although Griffith Observatory rates Southern California viewing conditions as only “fair.”
A blue moon—the second full moon in the same calendar month—will cast a spooky light over the Halloween sky on Oct. 31.
And finally, the Geminids— ”arguably the best meteor shower of the year,” according to AccuWeather—will appear overnight from Dec. 13-14. With viewing conditions rated “good” by Griffith Observatory, up to 150 meteors per hour can be expected.
Stargazer Ben Pace offered this final “fun fact” to keep in mind the next time a comet comes into view:
“The tail of a comet—you always think that it’s trailing the comet’s movement but actually it’s pointing away from the sun no matter what direction it’s moving,” Pace said. “Because the sun has solar rays—radiation—you always think of a comet with its tail trailing it, but it could theoretically be following its tail. So, don’t believe everything you see in cartoons.”