PORTLAND, Maine — The newly discovered comet NEOWISE is putting on a show in the early evening skies over Maine right now. It’s one of the rare comets to reveal its tail to anyone with a modest set of binoculars — and NEOWISE gets even more impressive when you take its picture.
“In my life, I’ve seen 30 or 40 comets. This is only the fourth one I’ve seen that has a tail you can obviously see,” said astronomy educator and photographer John Meader of Fairfield.
Meader knows what he’s talking about.
Since 1987, he’s operated the Northern Stars Planetarium. It’s an inflatable star dome that travels to about 100 elementary and middle schools in Maine every year, reaching upwards of 18,000 students. Before that, Meader worked in planetariums at the Francis Malcolm Science Center in Easton and the University of Maine in Orono.
“You can’t see most comets without a telescope and, most of the time, they look like a star someone tried to erase with an eraser — and there’s no discernable tail,” he said. “With this one, you look through binoculars and you’ll see that tail. It’s really clear.”
NEOWISE has been visible in Maine for at least a couple weeks but until a few days ago, you had to be up before dawn to see it. Now, it’s viewable in the evening just after sunset. NEOWISE is expected to be 10 percent brighter by this weekend and it will hang around in the sky until mid-August.
The comet’s propper name is C/2020 F3 NEOWISE. It’s named for NASA’s Near Earth Object Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer orbiting telescope, which first spotted it on March 27. Like all comets, it’s basically a giant, space-traveling dirty snowball of ice and organic materials leftover after the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. NEOWISE’s tail is made of dust and vaporizing gases given off as it travels close to the sun.
It’s worth noting that, as the comet comes close to Earth on its giant orbit around the solar system, this is our only chance to get a good look at it and its conspicuous tail. NEOWISE won’t be back this way in any of our lifetimes.
To find the comet yourself, Meader said, just grab some binoculars. Any pair will do. They don’t have to be expensive. Their power lies not in making NEOWISE look bigger but by gathering more light than your eyes can on their own.
“Scan just above the horizon in the northwest just after sunset and it will pop right into view,” Meader said. “You’ll see it with a nice little tail. It’s very sweet.”
It’s possible, with a very dark sky, to see the comet without binoculars, Meader said, but it will be difficult. Also, he warns that through binoculars, it won’t look exactly like the impressive photographs he’s taken. Just as the binoculars collect more light with their lenses, a camera takes in even more with long exposures.
“You have to remember that when you do photography, you’re gathering photons over time, which brightens everything up,” Meader said. “Your eyes can’t do that.”
It’s the same reason glossy space pictures of the sky always show more stars and a clearer Milky Way than the human eye can detect. Meader’s recent photo of NEOWISE in Skowhegan was a 5-second exposure.
To make a photograph of the comet, Meader said photographers will need a camera with manual controls, a tripod and some kind of remote shutter control or timer.
First, find the comet with binoculars and then point your tripod-mounted camera in the same direction, manually focusing it to infinity. Then, crank the ISO up high — that’s the camera’s light sensitivity — and open the aperture up all the way. The aperture is the hole inside the lens, controlling how much light gets through.
To make the exposure, set the shutter to something like 5 seconds and fire away. Use a remote control or the timer function which will ensure you don’t shake the camera by pressing the shutter button with your finger.
If the picture comes out too light, make the shutter speed a tad faster. If it’s too dark, make it longer.
“But you can’t take a very long exposure because the stars will start to trail,” Meader said.
That’s because, even though we can’t perceive it, the Earth is rotating on its axis, making the stars appear to revolve around the North Star every night.
Meader said it’s all about experimenting with your camera’s settings and admits, there’s some nights when his pictures don’t come out, either. The important part is to have fun outside, under the heavens, he adds.
“It gets you out to someplace interesting,” he said. “It’s getting yourself in front of something of beauty. I like that.”
John Meader is hosting a socially-distanced public star party at the Quarry Road Trails in Waterville from 11 to 11:45 p.m. Wednesday.