Comet-chasing: Like chasing tornadoes in ‘Twister,’ but safer

By Lisa Maria Bell

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Comet photos by Randy Bell

We escaped the house for a couple of hours last night, chasing a comet through the night skies.

I like how social media makes it easier to learn about celestial phenomena by seeing what’s trending and what people are talking about — full moons, eclipses, and in recent days, comet NEOWISE.

The three mile-wide comet will make its closest pass to Earth on Wednesday, July 22, according to the Washington Post. Neowise is a newly discovered comet, found by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, the NASA space telescope that first spotted the comet and for which NEOWISE is named, on March 27 of this year.

Last night, my husband, daughter and I left the house just after 8 p.m. to go comet hunting — driving away from our dense Clovis neighborhood to try to find a vantage point with fewer houses, trees and light pollution.

It took a few tries to find an ideal spot without going too far from home. The first planned location had unanticipated power lines marring the view.

A second spot was better, but had unexpectedly high traffic for a “country” road. This is where we first spotted NEOWISE as the color left the sky and darkness fell. But cars hurtling past us along Shepherd Avenue east of Academy ruined our night vision with every pass, not to mention causing us to fear being mowed down. And then there was the creepy guy on a motorbike who made two ambling passes by us, against traffic, bumping along the shoulder of the road, which is where we were. Of course, maybe we were the creepy ones, stopped and craning toward the night skies in front of someone’s house.

We moved again, and as we drove just a couple of miles further from town, we felt a sense of urgency, now that we had had a taste of the elusive object of our quest.

“We’re like those tornado-chasers in ‘Twister,’ but safer,” said Katie, my 17-year-old daughter. “This is fun!”

(Sidenote: “Twister” is one of my favorite movies. I would totally be like Jo, going toward the danger, not safety.)

Comet NEOWISEWe found a quieter cul-de-sac, where we settled in for the next hour. Binoculars and tripods came out of the car again, and we watched as the sky darkened further until our necks were sore, our eyes tired of focusing on a whisp of a smudge and NEOWISE became harder to track around 10 p.m.

I don’t think I’ve seen any other comets in my lifetime. When Halley’s Comet was last visible in 1986, I was a college freshman at U.C. Berkeley, not paying a lot of attention to science or current events. Katie says now I have a reason to stay alive until I’m 95, so I can catch Halley’s when it comes around again.

The three of us have shared other celestial moments, viewing various supermoons through the telescope, trying to catch meteor showers and tracking the International Space Station with text alerts from NASA’s Spot the Station. Katie and I saw the ISS twice on her recent quarantine birthday, which I wrote about.

And then there was the eclipse on August 21, 2017, the first total solar eclipse in nearly a century to cast the moon’s shadow on the entire contiguous United States. Fresno wasn’t in the path of totality, but it was still pretty spectacular here.

Looking at eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017I was working that day and went outside at the appointed time to gather with other Fresno State colleagues craning toward the sky with our eclipse glasses.

According to Space.com, a total solar eclipse happens somewhere on Earth every 18 months, but it’s rare for one to be visible to so many people across such a populated swath of the planet.

For an upcoming date to bookmark, the Perseid meteor shower will peak on the night of Tuesday, Aug. 11. Dozens of shooting stars could be visible beneath a clear sky every hour.

Comet NEOWISE won’t be visible to Earth again for almost 7,000 years. I’m glad we paused from our usual Saturday evening routine for this once-in-a-lifetime moment. Take time to discover magic moments, especially in these exceptionally stressful times. It will help us regain a sense of normalcy, hope and wonder.

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