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Comet NEOWISE visible in Oshawa’s night sky

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) in the predawn skies on July 9, 2020, over Deer Valley, Utah. Image Credit: NASA

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

The night sky will be shining a little brighter as Comet NEOWISE is making its way across Earth’s horizon.

Comet NEOWISE was discovered on March 27, 2020, according to Ontario Tech University astrophysicist Dr. Rupinder Brar.

“It is a periodic comet, so it does make long loops around the sun. But that timeframe is so great that it’s an unfamiliar comet to us,” he explains.

It takes approximately 6,800 years for the comet to do a full lap around the sun, he says, which is why it’s considered a “long period comet.”

“That’s very different from, say Halley’s Comet, which is probably the most famous comet in recent human history,” he says, adding Halley’s Comet can be seen every 75 years.

Comet NEOWISE has a second “more scientific” name, says Brar. Its designation is C/2020 F3.

“All those letters mean something to distinguish it from other comets, but we’re commonly calling it Comet NEOWISE,” he says. “That’s because the satellite that first discovered it is called NEOWISE, and that’s an acronym for something that’s unrelated to comets.”

This particular satellite’s original job wasn’t to find comets, notes Brar.

However, according to NASA’s website, the satellite now searches for “near-Earth objects from low-Earth orbit,” such as asteroids and comets.

“Traditionally, comets such as Halley’s Comet were named after human observers, and so, before there were too many automated satellites out there observing space at all times, almost all comets were discovered by human beings, and they were named after them,” he says.

These days, Brar says the name of the human or the satellite who discovered the comet will be its namesake.

He says as an astrophysicist, he’s very excited to be around for the Comet NEOWISE’s latest trip past the Earth.

“It’s a very cool thing. We didn’t know about this comet until a couple of weeks ago,” he says.

He notes there’s not a lot of new information an astrophysicist can glean from simply observing a comet such as NEOWISE.

“When you have powerful telescopes and other means of measuring things, every comet offers an opportunity to learn something,” he says. “But we’ve actually been to a comet now. A couple of years ago there was a probe that went to a comet.”

Brar believes one of the more important things Comet NEOWISE offers goes beyond astrophysics.

“It’s for everybody. For people to be part of something that is outside of Earth, but is hopefully a positive thing and can bring people together, and maybe even inspire those who are interested in thinking about outer space, even as a career or a hobby,” he says.

He adds it’s difficult to predict how visible a comet is going to be as it crosses the night sky.

“You never really know with comets, as far as how spectacular they’re going to be visually. This one wasn’t necessarily predicted to be extraordinary in any way, but it’s really shaping up to be a very beautiful object in our sky, and is something that most of the humans on Earth can share in,” says Brar.

In Oshawa, Brar expects residents will be able to see the comet until early August, and recommends going outside at night as soon as possible.

“If things go well, and things have been going well for the comet, I would say probably until August, and maybe a little into August,” he says.

For those who wish to see it with the “naked eye,” he says to go out as soon as possible to take a look, as visibility will be best until July 23 or 24.

“Really, it’s the next week or so that it’s going to be as good as it can,” he says.

Brar believes this is a great way to bring people together and get them interested in “what goes on beyond our own planet.”