A recently discovered comet is now shining brightly in the morning sky. Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was first spotted March 27, 2020, by NASA’s NEOWISE space-borne telescope. The comet passed inside Mercury’s orbit on 03 July 2020 and quickly brightened as it as heated by the intensity of the Sun.
The comet has been rising around the start of Astronomical Twilight when the eastern horizon is just beginning to brighten. Within about 45 minutes to an hour—or shortly after the start of Nautical Twilight—the morning sky has become bright enough to make observation difficult.
The image above was taken as the comet rose above Grand Canyon. Also visible in the image are the planet Venus, the bright star Aldebaran, and the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters.
By the third week middle of July the comet will shift from the morning sky into the evening twilight sky. Again, there will be a short window of time in which it is easily observed but viewing the evening is far easier than the morning.
Although it’s fun to photograph the Full Moon, I actually prefer photographing a thin crescent Moon, usually just a day or two after the New Moon. The thin crescent is brightly lit while the remainder is softly lit by light reflected by Earth, hence known as Earthshine. It’s also known as DaVinci Glow. As well, the Moon does not overwhelm the night sky so that stars can also be in the photograph.
During late Spring and into early Summer the crescent Moon sets in the west-northwest and this makes it a good target for shooting at Upper Lake Mary. The long and narrow lake is aligned WNW–ESE so that the Moon casts a brilliant reflection that can run the length of the lake.
I’ve shot this several times over the last few years but never tire of it. All it requires is enough of a gap in the clouds for the Moon to shine and for light winds so that the lake surface is relatively smooth.
The past few nights have been interesting. On the evening of December 13–14 was the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. This year the expected peak was around 100–120 meteors per hour and various meteor counts appear to confirm that number.
At the same time, Comet 46P/Wirtanen has been getting a lot of attention. On December 16 it made its closest approach to Earth—only 11.5 million km away. That’s about 30 lunar distances for reference.
From SpaceWeather.com: “Although the comet is very close to Earth, it is not very bright. 46P/Wirtanen is a relatively small comet and, thus, barely visible to the unaided eye despite its proximity. It is nevertheless an easy target for digital cameras. Even a short exposure reveals the comet’s spherical form and emerald green hue.”
During the late evening of December 13, I traveled to Wupatki National Monument because of its dark skies. I shot a sequence of photos—each of 30 seconds duration—of the night sky hoping to catch a few meteors. One bright meteor blazed across the sky and I was able to catch part of it before it moved out of the frame of the camera. At the same time, the crescent Moon was setting in the west and gently illuminating Wukoki Pueblo. At the very top center of the photograph is Comet 46P/Wirtanen.
After about 1/2 hour of shooting meteors, I shot longer exposures of the comet. On this night, the comet formed a triangle with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. The image shown here is from ten 60-second images stacked using Deep Sky Stacker (DSS) and post-processed using rnc-color-stretch.
A few nights later, the comet had moved so that it was between the Pleiades and Hyades clusters. Again, I shot a sequence of 60-second exposures totaling about one hour in duration—this time from the Mormon Lake overlook. The motion of the comet is quite apparent in this sequence of images. The first image shows the motion of the comet against the stars; the second is a time-lapse movie of the same sequence.
Time lapse movie showing the motion of Comet 46P/Wirtanen during a period of one hour.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen is now moving farther from Earth and will slowly dim in brightness but it will remain visible through binoculors, telescopes, and with digital cameras for many weeks or more. There is still plenty of time to see the comet if you haven’t already.