Comet NEOWISE: Your stunning pictures and a masterclass in how to photograph it with Cambridge Astronomical Association
Blazing through the night sky, Comet NEOWISE offers an incredible spectacle this month, as these photographs from Cambridgeshire photographers show.
A huge interplanetary iceberg, it is thought to be about three miles (5km) across and date back to the dawn of our solar system, some 4.6 billion years ago.
To witness it shining like a cosmic torch beaming amid the stars, is a rare sight indeed, for NEOWISE comes around only once every 6,800 years.
While it cannot quite match the brightness of 1997’s Comet Hale–Bopp – officially dubbed a ‘great comet’ – NEOWISE is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. View it through binoculars and you are in for a treat.
Among those who were out photographing it at the weekend was Rebecca Saxton, who told us: “We had a beautiful clear night. The photo was taken in Cottenham at around 1am to get away from the light pollution, but it is still visible from the city provided there are no trees in the way.”
Paul Haworth captured it above Swavesey windmill.
And reflected in Swavesey lake...
Paul also captured a self-portrait by standing very still for 20 seconds.
All over the world, photographers have been capturing it shining above famous landmarks. James Billings took his image of the comet with Ely Cathedral in the foreground, while St John’s shared a photograph of it above the college.
In early July, the comet was visible only for those willing to rouse themselves from bed before sunrise for a celestial treat. Thankfully, it is now visible all night, from about an hour after sunset, so from about 10.30pm.
As the skies fully darken, it becomes clearer – with the best views afforded to those who can stomach enough hot chocolate to make it to 2.30am.
Finding it is relatively straightforward - look in a northerly direction close to the horizon. You can read our full guide to how to see Comet NEOWISE throughout July here.
The good news is that as the month goes on, views should improve further as it will rise slightly in the sky, without ever getting too high.
The best views are expected on July 22-23, when NEOWISE will be closest to Earth – a mere 64 million miles (103 million km) away.
NASA describes comets as cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the Sun in an elongated fashion. The solid, icy heart of a comet is called a nucleus. As it gets closer to the Sun, some of the ice melts and boils off, with particles of dust, creating the cloud you see around the nucleus, known as the coma.
The sunlight which illuminates the coma sends some of the material into the spectacular tail.
In fact, comets have two tails: a white tail of cosmic dust, and a blue tail of electrically-charged gas.
Comet NEOWISE reached perihelion, which is its closest point to the Sun, on July 3, when it was only 26.7 million miles (43 million km) away from it. But why the odd name?
Formally known as Comet C/2020 F3, it was discovered on March 27, 2020 by a space observatory 326 miles (525km) above Earth: the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also known as NEOWISE.
While you are out there looking for the comet, turn to the south-east to see Saturn and Jupiter shining brightly beside one another.
Photographers all around the country have been sending the Cambridge Independent their pictures of the stunning comet.
A masterclass in photographing the night sky and Comet NEOWISE
Comet NEOWISE is visible to the naked eye and can be viewed in small telescopes. But the best views are through binoculars.
Paul Fellows, chairman of Cambridge Astronomical Association, suggests: “To view it, a pair of binoculars (7x30 to 10x50) is great - a telescope won’t work very well as the field of view is too small really.
“To image it, I use my Canon DSLR on a tripod with a cable release to control it without touching the camera so that it doesn’t shake.
“A 100mm to 200mm focal length lens is great, though other sizes can also work.
“With 200mm, I used two seconds of exposure at ISO6400. But you can play around with those numbers - say ISO 1600 and eight seconds.
“The hard part is focusing. You have to do it manually and with a bit of trial and error.”
Instead of its usual lecture series at the Institute of Astronomy in Madingley Road, Cambridge Astronomical Association has been offering Zoom sessions this year, including an ‘Introduction to imaging’ course about astro-photography, the third of which featured Comet NEOWISE.
The first part covers capturing the sky with a digital camera.
The second session explores using a camera with a telescope.
And the third video is about capturing deep sky objects, including comet NEOWISE.
You can find out more about Cambridge Astronomical Association and its events at http://www.caa-cya.org/index.php.