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Comet NEOWISE blazes colorful path across nighttime sky over North Bay

When it comes to comet-watching, people living in the northern hemisphere have endured a long dry spell, said Keith Waxman, an SRJC astronomy instructor. Now is your chance to see one.|

The comet cutting a dramatic apostrophe into the early morning sky Wednesday was discovered in late March of this year by NASA’s NEOWISE space telescope.

At the time, Comet NEOWISE, as it’s now known, was 194 million miles away and not visible to the naked eye.

It’s much closer to Earth now, as Kent Porter can attest. The veteran Press Democrat photographer rose at 2 a.m. Wednesday. After driving up Skaggs Springs Road, above Lake Sonoma, he set up his camera in the middle of the road and began scanning the skies to the northeast.

With winds already whipping up to 15 mph out of the northwest, Porter had to do some “MacGyvering” ‒ placing sandbags around the legs of his camera’s tripod. He put another on top of the camera, “to keep it from shaking.”

He snapped five photos of what he believed was “a really bright comet. Then I realized it had no tail.” He was shooting Venus.

Looking east of that planet, around 10 degrees above the horizon, he soon spotted Comet NEOWISE.

“I shot about 12 pictures. Each exposure is about 10 seconds,” he said. The picture above was the first of that set.

When it comes to comet-watching, people living in the Earth’s northern hemisphere have endured a long dry spell, said Keith Waxman, an astronomy instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College. Comet McNaught, which appeared in 2006, was spectacular ‒ but only for those in the southern hemisphere. Before that, said Waxman, you really have to go back to Comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid-1990s.

Astronomers had high hopes for Comet Ison in 2012, recalled Waxman, “but it was a dud.”

“You never can tell with comets,” said Waxman. “It all depends on the outgassing. If it’s on the other side of the sun, you’re not gonna see it very well. You want to have the perspective where you’re not looking radially along the tail, so you’re not having the tail go away from you.”

Working early Wednesday morning, Porter didn’t have that problem. “People are going to ask if it’s a stacked image,” he said of the photo above. “It’s not. It’s one exposure.”

He limited the exposure to 10 seconds, explaining, “With a longer lens you get a lot of camera shake,” with a longer exposure. He didn’t want that.

Also, the longer he exposed the picture, the brighter the sky become. “The stars started to wash out.”

Upon rising early Wednesday, Porter saw the electronic edition of The Press Democrat, its headline announcing two more deaths due to COVID-19.

“It’s so sad,” he said. “So part of my goal was to go out and shoot something that could give everyone a break from all the bad news.”

NEOWISE will be visible just before early dawn in the low northeast sky until July 12, and will then be visible at dusk beginning July 13 on the low northwest horizon.

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