Calgary·Photos

Albertans are capturing newly discovered comet on camera

At first, NEOWISE was visible only through powerful telescopes, but as it passed the sun, it had an outburst of activity that caused it to become much brighter in July.

NEOWISE should be brightest on July 22 before disappearing for another 6,800 years

Kyle Hetherington captured Comet NEOWISE appearing to streak across the sky northwest of Strathmore, Alta. (Submitted by Kyle Hetherington)

Glowing brightly in the sky by night, and followed by a trail of what looks like white light, a comet visible to the naked eye is currently moving past Earth and dazzling Albertans. 

Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3 was discovered on March 27, and named after the the NASA space telescope used to discovered it.

And although it comes from outer space, CBC Calgary's astronomy watcher Don Hladiuk told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday that a comet isn't that different from a dirty snowball. 

"If you were to … pick up a handful of snow along the road, it would be a mixture of ice, and dust, and rock — and that's exactly what this comet is," Hladiuk said. 

Comet made brighter by proximity to sun

At first, NEOWISE was visible only through powerful telescopes. But as it passed the sun, it had an outburst of activity that caused it to become much brighter in July — and some Albertans were able to capture it with just their camera phones.

"As [the comet] approaches the sun … it changes phase from a solid to a gas by missing that intermediate liquid stage, because it's in the vacuum of space — there's no real water on a comet," said Hladiuk.

"And that's what produces this beautiful, long tail that we're seeing."

According to NASA, that tail — which is comprised of ion and dust — is expelled from the comet's nucleus, which is five kilometres in diameter. 

How to spot NEOWISE

NEOWISE will be closest to Earth, and at its brightest, on July 22. After its current visit, the comet likely won't be seen again for 6,800 years.

Hladiuk said Albertans hoping to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of this meteor will want to look to the northern horizon and find the Big Dipper. Below the handle of the constellation is where the comet is positioned in the sky.

It will be more easily spotted when the twilight glow has disappeared, and getting out of the city to hunt the comet is even more effective, so that our eyes can adapt to the dark. 

Comet-hunters hoping to catch more detail may want to bring binoculars, which can let in more light.

Adrian Edwards took this photo of the comet just east of Crossfield. (Supplied by Adrian Edwards)
Calgary photographer Don Molyneaux snapped the comet on Bergen Road northwest of Didsbury, and against the northern lights, at 2:30 a.m. on July 14. (Supplied by Don Molyneaux)
A closer image of NEOWISE from Kyle Hetherington. (Submitted by Kyle Hetherington)

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and CBC British Columbia.

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