A photo of Comet NEOWISE taken from the BYU-Idaho observatory in Rexburg. | Courtesy Jon Paul Johnson
The following is a news release from Sky and Telescope.
IDAHO FALLS – An unexpected celestial newcomer, after falling toward the Sun for more than 3,000 years, is making a lovely appearance in our skies right now. You can see it for yourself very low in the northwest in the evening after sunset — but you’ll need to know exactly where and what to look for, and binoculars will help.
Comet NEOWISE is named for the NASA infrared space telescope that discovered it on March 27th. Officially designated C/2020 F3, it passed just 27.4 million miles from the Sun (inside the orbit of Mercury) on July 3rd and has emerged into view low over the horizon in the early dawn.
It was well-positioned for skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes (including most of the United States, Canada, and Europe) for the mornings of July 10th through 14th. The farther north you are, the better.
“The comet was easily seen by eye on the morning of July 9th,” says Sean Walker, associate editor for Sky & Telescope. “I could see the curve of the tail without optical aid, about 3 degrees long.”
Comet NEOWISE is gradually fading as it draws away from the sun, but meanwhile, it’s edging nearer to Earth. The comet will be closest to Earth, 64 million miles away, on July 23rd.
FIND THE COMET: JULY 14TH AND AFTER
From the 14th onward, the comet’s motion will have shifted its best viewing opportunity to the evening sky. By then Comet NEOWISE might no longer be visible by eye, but the chance of glimpsing it improves if you can find a location that’s free of light pollution.
Start looking about 1 hour after sunset, when you’ll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness. Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to right.
Every evening thereafter the comet will be getting dimmer, but it will also be getting higher up as twilight ends. On the evening of the 23rd, when Comet NEOWISE is its closest to Earth, locate it by first noting the two stars at the bottom of the Big Dipper’s bowl. Then draw an imaginary line through them and toward the lower left to a point in the sky a little more than one fist away. But by that date, you’ll almost certainly need binoculars or a telescope.
Want to try taking take pictures? Bring a tripod and a camera that can take time exposures several seconds long. Unfortunately, even the best phone cameras will give mediocre results. What you really want is a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens.
This chart shows the appearance of Comet NEOWISE on the evenings of July 14 –23. | Courtesy Sky & Telescope
Listen to a couple ideas about humanity’s future on the moon and you’ll likely hear about the game-changing potential of a substance you probably have in your freezer: water ice.
Would-be explorers have high hopes they can harvest ice hidden below the moon’s surface, both for astronauts to drink and to make rocket fuels to make round trips cheaper. But the image of robots tearing up the lunar surface and processing frozen water out from other compounds skips a step in considering resources on the moon. Ice will never be the first resource humans use on the moon, experts emphasized at a recent scientific conference.
Instead, it will be sunlight.
“The first and easiest resource that we have there is solar energy,” Jake Bleacher, a geologist and chief exploration scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, said during the Lunar Surface Science Virtual Workshop held digitally on May 28.
Energy means power, particularly for operating instruments on the lunar surface, as well as for supporting the long-term base on the moon that NASA plans to build as part of the agency’s Artemis program, the short-term goal of which is to land humans at the south pole by 2024.
The two resources are direct opposites and both rely on how the moon aligns with the sun. Unlike Earth’s, the axis on which the moon rotates is more or less perpendicular to the plane of the solar system, which contains the sun, Earth and moon. It’s Earth’s axial tilt that gives us seasons, as one hemisphere tilts to receive more sunlight, making incredibly long days at the pole, then much less for a near-constant polar night.
Not so on the moon. There, the daily cycle is constant. At the poles, the lack of tilt means light and dark are governed in large part by terrain, as more elevated locations block sunlight from reaching lower areas.
On the dark side of this divide are permanently shadowed regions, many in the craters that scar the moon’s surface, where temperatures are always cold enough that water ice remains frozen. On the light side of the divide are locations sometimes nicknamed the “peaks of eternal light” — and it’s here that the first lunar resource harvesters would go, exploration experts say.
“The polar location, which was specified by the [Artemis program mandate from the National] Space Council, is enabling because of the existence of the locations of near-permanent sunlight,” Sam Lawrence, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said during his own presentation on the same day. “It is the illumination that’s a resource.”
Nevertheless, it’s the potential for water ice that prompts the most discussion during these meetings and stars in NASA’s written visions for how lunar exploration will become sustainable under the Artemis program.
“We heard a lot about the polar volatiles story and, to be sure, it’s a good one,” Lawrence said. “But it’s the illumination that is the resource we’re actually going after with the Artemis missions.”
The Eta Aquarids will continue to be active on Tuesday night, providing onlookers with another opportunity to see the celestial light show.
The second meteor shower in as many weeks will dazzle the eyes of stargazers around the globe, but the light show will be battling against the glow of a nearly full moon when it reaches its peak.
The Eta Aquarids is an annual meteor shower in early May, and this year, it reached its climax on Monday night and the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday morning.
“This shower happens to be one of if not the best in the Southern Hemisphere,” AccuWeather Astronomy Blogger Dave Samuhel said. “It is a moderate shower for the Northern Hemisphere.”
People living south of the equator may count as many as 40 shooting stars per hour at the height of the celestial light show, the American Meteor Society (AMS) said. This includes Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South America.
This year, the meteor shower peaked just two nights before the final supermoon of 2020. The bright moon may make it difficult to see some of the fainter meteors, but it should not completely wash out the shower.
Of course, weather and cloud cover will significantly factor into how well sky gazers in different parts of the country are able to witness the meteor shower Monday and Tuesday night.
Onlookers across the southern U.S. and the interior West had the best viewing conditions on Monday night for 2020’s iteration of the Eta Aquarids.
The Eta Aquarids will continue to be active on Tuesday night, providing onlookers with another opportunity to see the celestial light show.
Clouds are forecast to become more widespread over the eastern and western U.S., but mainly clear conditions are expected to remain over the Four Corners and southern Plains. Northern New England and most of Florida should also have favorable viewing conditions on Tuesday night.
There won’t be another major meteor shower until the Delta Aquarids peak in late July.
No special equipment is needed to watch a meteor shower, although people should pack some patience when heading out to spend some time under the stars.
“Give yourself a solid hour to look for meteors. Get comfortable. Lay down on a blanket, or a reclining chair,” Samuhel said.
People should also avoid looking toward the moon, which will be above the horizon for most of the night. Looking at the moon can make it harder to see meteors, so try to focus in the darkest part of the sky.
The best time to watch the meteor shower will be after midnight once the shower’s radiant point climbs above the horizon.
The radiant point is simply the part of the sky where the meteors originate, but you do not need to look in this direction to spot meteors. However, as the radiant point climbs higher in the sky, more and more meteors will able to be seen.
Many of the meteor showers throughout the year are caused by debris left behind by comets when they visit the inner solar system. When this debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns incredibly bright for a few brief seconds.
“The majority of visible meteors are caused by particles ranging in size from about that of a small pebble down to a grain of sand, and generally weigh less than 1-2 grams,” the AMS said.
The debris that causes the Eta Aquarids is actually dust left behind by one of the most famous comets – Halley’s Comet.
Halley’s Comet only orbits the sun once every 75 years, but each year in early May, the Earth passes through some of the debris that it left behind.
“The Eta Aquarids are one of two meteor showers sparked by Halley’s comet. The other being the Orionids in October. “
People that miss out on the Eta Aquarids will need to wait a few months before the next opportunity to catch a meteor shower.
According to the AMS, the next major meteor shower will not peak until late July.
“From the beginning of this crisis, Donald Trump has been saying a lot of not-smart things,” said Trevor Noah on Monday’s episode of the Daily Show, such as that coronavirus would magically disappear with spring weather, or that hydroxychloroquine could be used to treat it. “But a few days ago, as you’ve probably heard by now, President Trump created shock waves of stupidity with his latest and probably greatest unlicensed medical opinion yet.”
That would be Trump’s headline-dominating, beyond-the-pale suggestion at a press conference last Thursday that Americans should try blasting themselves with UV rays or injecting disinfectants, such as bleach, to treat the virus. “This is maybe the first time in documented history that we’ve seen someone not thinking out loud,” said Noah. “Injecting disinfectants into your body? This is the problem when the dumbest person in the room thinks they’re the smartest person.
“I almost don’t even blame Trump, because there’s no way he even understands what bleach is,” Noah continued. “Like, do you think Donald Trump has ever cleaned anything in his life? Do you think he has ever actually used disinfectant? Cleaning supplies might as well be magical potions to him.” Noah broke out his Trump impression: “I dropped a hamburger on the carpet, then some Mexican lady came in with some Clorox, sprayed it on the carpet, said some spell in Spanish, and then it was gone.”
“If you’re some random guy on the internet with 12 followers, you can say shit like this and it really doesn’t matter,” Noah explained. “But Donald Trump is not just some random guy.” And in what Noah is now calling “the pandumbic”, Trump’s comments have had significant fallout, such as upticks in calls to state poison control hotlines, and the release of what were once unnecessary warnings from cleaning supply companies to not eat bleach.
“Yep, this is where we are now: authorities have to respond to the president’s ideas the same way they do to viral TikTok challenges,” said Noah. Although he did love that people still called their health departments to ask whether they should consume bleach, because it means “that even the people who are dumb enough to drink bleach are still smart enough not to trust something that Donald Trump said”.
On the Late Show, Stephen Colbert also addressed Trump’s endorsement of consuming bleach, since “it’s not enough that his supporters are all white on the outside”.
“Now, obviously, no one should do that,” Colbert continued. “So this weekend, people did that.” Multiple states experienced an uptick in poison control calls, forcing the president to claim that his comments were merely sarcastic. “Oh yeah, Trump is famous for his sarcastic comments,” Colbert deadpanned, then played a clip of Trump’s oath of office. “Hilarious!”
Trump also lashed out at reporters on Twitter, decrying journalists and demanding they hand back their “Noble prizes”. When the internet pointed out that actually, there are no Nobel prizes for journalism, Trump again invoked sarcasm as an excuse. “Does sarcasm ever work?” he tweeted. “Oh, sarcasm works great,” Colbert said. “Sarcasm is absolutely the best thing for a president to do in the middle of a pandemic. You’re doing amazing Mr ‘President’.”
“I’ve gotta be honest, when we went on hiatus a week ago, I did not expect that when I came back I’d be talking about the president suggesting using disinfectants and powerful lights to cure coronavirus,” said Seth Meyers on Late Night. “But then again, that’s on me. I should have expected it. We should all know by now: Trump will be more outlandish with each passing week because that’s his nature.”
Still, Meyers was baffled – “You have two renowned scientists working with you. Why are you pitching ideas like a sixth-century druid?” The comments track, though, as “Trump’s ideas for solutions are things that have always been there and require no work or effort from him. He’s like a kid who forgot it was show-and-tell” and points out the sun, Meyers said.
Unfortunately, Meyers concluded, “we just need to be prepared. This is going to keep happening,” since “Trump is a powerful, dumb guy and he is friends with other powerful, dumb guys and they like to call each other up and pitch their dumb ideas to each other. The whole thing is like a lifelong episode of Shark Tank where no one has a good idea and everyone wins.”
And in Los Angeles, Jimmy Kimmel at least found one potential silver lining in Trump’s false dismissal of his dangerous bleach endorsement as sarcasm: “Can we claim we were being sarcastic when we elected him president?”
Though, after Trump’s press conference last week, the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidelines for disinfectants with the line: “Do not ingest disinfectant products.” “Unfortunately, many of those who support Trump are perfectly happy to ingest disinfectant products if the president tells them to do it,” said Kimmel. Even the makers of Lysol had to issue a warning. “I think this might be the first president ever to embarrass a cleaning product,” Kimmel said.
“Usually, when a human being says something that is dangerous and dumb and gets a ton of backlash for it, they either apologize or at the very least, reel it in,” Kimmel concluded. “But if you’re Donald Trump, you just don’t do that. You just keep talking and talking and you try to bury it all under a mountain of nonsense.”