Views from a Blue Dot: Comet Neowise

On Saturday, we took a break from the pandemic to go outside and look for a comet. We live in a Dallas suburb, but one which has grown a lot in 10 years. The skies are not quite as dark as they used to be, but we thought it might be possible to spot and view Comet Neowise.

We set out just before 9pm to a local city park. Jodi had the binoculars I got from my grandfather when he passed away; I had the new DSLR camera Jodi got me for Christmas last year. The sky was still showing the last glow of sunset, and city lights coming on across North Texas was being gently scattered back down to Earth, creating a faint but irreducible haze in the sky. We found a good spot to try to see the comet. Jodi located it with an iOS skywatching app, and we waited for more darkness to settle.

While waiting, we took stock of the night sky. Planets and stars peeked out of the twilight Arcturus glowed orange overhead. Jupiter lit the sky closer to the southern horizon, with the four Galilean Moons clearly visible under even modest magnification. Our real prize was to be found just below the cup of the Big Dipper. As the sky conditions settled to just about the best possible, we started spotting the stars of the Big Dipper more closely and hunting for the comet.

We knew to start from Merak, the star that makes up the front lower edge of the dipper’s cup. Go straight down from Merak, and the comet would lie somewhere along that line. Indeed, once we employed the binoculars, the bright core of the comet and the fainter long arcing wisp of its tail were clear. This was incredibly thrilling; I’ve never had a chance to see a comet first-hand before.

I got the camera setup and aimed in the general area where the comet should appear. In particular, we noted that Neowise was framed by a triangular arrangement of background stars. Spotting those was hard on the camera, but after a few long exposures at high ISO (>1600), it was clear where to center the shot to best pickup the comet.

Comet Neowise

After a bunch of photos, we packed up and went home. It was 10pm, way past our bedtime. It had been worth it. With all madness raging down here on Earth, it’s nice to see a cosmic tourist taking a drive through the inner solar system. Neowise will not to return for several thousand years. When it comes back, I wonder if humanity will still be here to see it?

Astrophotography Sunday

I awoke to the buzzing of my wristwatch. It was 4:30am. The telescope and all its accessories were already in the car. I only needed to get out of bed and dress myself. Jupiter waited. In the night sky above Allen, I was sure it was clear and that Jupiter waited. So I put on warm clothes, a hat, and a scarf. I put coffee in a thermos. I hit the road for a nearby hill.

Jupiter waited. But so did something far more extraordinary.

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LIGO, VIRGO, and February 11, 2016

The LIGO gravity wave detection experiment - Livingston, Louisiana site.
The LIGO gravity wave detection experiment – Livingston, Louisiana site.

100 years ago, Albert Einstein published what is considered the foundational work of his theory of “General Relativity,” a scientific theory of space and time. Tomorrow, two large experiments and collaborations – LIGO and VIRGO – will present the status of their searches for one of the last undiscovered predictions of General Relativity: travelling distortions in spacetime called “gravitational waves.” Rumors are flying, hopes are high, and I am just waiting for their scientific papers.

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Messages from Blois

For the second time, I will be attending the Rencontres de Blois, a yearly conference that represents a convergence (perhaps even a conversation) between cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, and particle physics. Held in the Chateau de Blois, a castle perched above the Loire River in Blois, France, this conference will bring the opportunity to discuss the latest from physics measurements made across the globe.
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