Residents and amateur astronomers are flocking to Moore Park this week to catch a glimpse of the comet Neowise. Evenings in mid- to late-July are becoming an ideal time to take advantage of Klamath’s dark skies and view the space snowball. It won’t pass by Earth for another 6,800 years, so now is the time to turn your gaze upward.
The Klamath County Museum is hosting this week’s star parties — beginning around 9 p.m. at the park’s Marina 2 parking lot Monday through Wednesday night — in partnership with Klamath Falls City Parks. About an hour and a half after sunset on Monday, stargazers staring through binoculars at the northern sky began excitedly shouting, “I see it!” Soon, the star-like comet and its elegant tail became visible to the naked eye.
Greg Christensen, an amateur astronomer who works with the museum, said Neowise may be even better than Halley’s Comet, last visible to Earthlings in 1986. It’s a welcome change from previous comets that the sun burned up before they could get close to Earth.
“It’s been years since we really had a good one,” he said.
Formed near the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, the comet is a frozen collection of gas and dust approximately 3 miles across. It reached its peak brightness on July 3 when it passed within 27.7 million miles of the sun. The sun’s heat and electromagnetic field vaporized part of the comet’s surface, scattering its gas and dust into a tail. Before it heads back out into deep space, Neowise will pass within 64.3 million miles of Earth — the closest it’ll get to us — on July 22.
Along with the Earth’s position in space and a waning crescent moon that leaves skies darker, this provides an optimal window for viewing the comet between now and July 22. Once it starts moving away from Earth, the comet will dim faster until even amateur telescopes can’t detect it.
The best time to start viewing Neowise is about 80 minutes after sunset — once the afterglow fades, it’ll be dark enough for the cosmic ice cube to shine. Each night, the comet will be visible farther above the horizon at this time — and will position itself higher up in the sky as the month progresses. Todd Kepple, museum manager for Klamath County, said that will make the comet visible for longer through the night: As the planet spins, the comet inches toward the horizon and becomes less visible because stargazers must look through more of the Earth’s hazy atmosphere to see it.
The Klamath County Museum is hosting star parties July 13-15, but Neowise will likely still be visible through the end of the month. Here’s how to catch a glimpse:
n Find a spot away from artificial lights with an unobstructed view of the northern horizon. Make sure you’re relatively far away from hills or mountains that may block too much of it.
n Bring binoculars or a telescope if you have them—this will help you pinpoint the comet when it’s still too light out to see it with the naked eye.
n Once the stars come out, look for the Big Dipper in the northwest sky. Neowise will be below and to the right of that constellation for the next few nights, and by July 23 it will have moved up and to the left of it.
n The comet will look like a star with a gentle tail behind it.