We checked in with an astronomer (and local photographers too) to get the best tips for viewing…and then we went out and had a look.

A composite image capturing Neowise in the early a.m. hours over Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve, in San Jose. (Photo by Dan Pruyn)

We checked in with an astronomer (and local photographers too) to get the best tips for viewing…and then we went out and had a look.

You have probably heard by now about the giant ball of ice—AKA Comet Neowise—that has been hurtling through our galaxy and across the night sky…but have you seen it?

Comet Neowise in the sky over Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve…right here on the Peninsula. Local photographer Kevin Angelo’s image is a composite, made from 6 images stacked on top of each other. (Photo by Kevin Angelo)

Well, now’s the time. And yes, it is true that you can view Neowise in the early evening (as opposed to its 4 a.m. appearance earlier in the month) and that it is visible to the naked eye. Better yet, it is currently the closest it will come to the Earth during its space traveling trajectory.

But while that all sounds like smooth stargazing, we’ve found that it’s not exactly so simple when it comes to actually seeing our celestial visitor. Why? Mainly—the Bay Area combo of summer fog + light pollution makes the easy naked-eye-towards-the-evening-sky notion of Neowise a far more challenging prospect than much of the current buzz would have you believe. It’s also just not nearly as bright up in the sky as you may think.

So with that in mind, we spoke with a expert local astronomer as well as comet-hunting Bay Area photogs to help us trouble shoot for the stars. From there we stopped by a local Krispy Kreme to load up on coffee & donuts (not saying it’s required, just saying…) and set out to find Neowise here in the 6–5–0. The good news is it’s very doable…and makes for a great pandemic-era outing.

So read up, make a plan and get out there, because optimal viewing is right now…and Neowise won’t be back for another 6700 years!

Neowise captured amongst the stars by local photographer Ashok Srinivasan (using astrophotography equipment). Notice the separate ion tail, dust and vapor tail. (Photo by Ashok Srinivasan)

Out-of-this-world intel

First things first…we figured we should start by sketch out the basics on viewing Neowise (named for the NASA infrared telescope which discovered it—Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer—on March 27th).

So, we reached out to the Six Fifty’s go-to expert for all things infinity and beyond, Bing Quock, Assistant Director of Morrison Planetarium at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, to get some insight into the current location of the comet and where to see it right now in the Bay Area.

Ok Bing, it’s all yours:

Comet NEOWISE is closest to Earth on Wednesday [July 22] and is now located in the evening sky toward the northwest. Best time to observe is about 90 minutes after sunset — or around 10pm — when twilight has faded and the comet has not yet set but is still high enough above horizon haze. Observers can optimize their chances of seeing it by viewing from a location with a low northwest horizon away from bright lights. It’s on the edge of naked-eye visibility for many people, so binoculars will certainly be helpful.

Neowise, as captured in various Peninsula locations by Ashok Srinivasan (clocksie from top left) Neowise above Windy Hill Open Space Preserve during a break from the fog; a view from the Los Altos hills; seen over El Carmelo Elementary last week at about 5 a.m.; above the Palo Alto Baylands earlier this month at San Antonio and Terminal Blvd at around 4:45 a.m. (All photos by Ashok Srinivasan)

The comet is located to the lower-left of the Big Dipper and — if people are familiar with the constellations — is near a pair of stars … that represents one of the paws of Ursa Major the Great Bear. Another way to locate it in tonight’s sky is to draw a line from the middle star in the Big Dipper’s handle through the bottom-left star of the Dipper’s bowl … During the next few nights, it’ll be moving to the upper-left, roughly parallel to the long-axis of the Big Dipper. At the same time, as it moves higher into the sky, the Moon’s phase will be growing, and its light may start to interfere with observations. I would say this week is the best chance to see it before moonlight makes it too difficult.

Bing stressed to us the importance of finding a viewing location with “a low northwestern horizon” that is free from fog and devoid of light pollution.

Furthermore, he made a candid point about tempering expectations in light of the current media surrounding the comet, saying that “the great photos that have been published are time exposures and in some cases have been enhanced with Photoshop, which makes the comet look much brighter and more colorful than it actually appears to the unaided eye.” In this regard, casual stargazers expecting a rehash of Hale-Bopp’s “Great Comet” brightness circa ’95…should get ready to squint real hard at the sky.

But speaking of great photos….

A composite image of the International Space Station passing in front of Neowise over Marin County. (Photo by Matt McLean)

Shooting (for) the stars

For some real on-the-ground info on where to go and how to locate Neowise around the Bay, we talked to some our favorite local photographers…thinking that if anyone was savvy to the nuances of navigating the comet, it would be them. Here are a few main points that they conveyed to us:

1. Fog & Light: As nearly every photographer we spoke with told us, there are two main calculations to make on any given night—where to go to avoid 1.The Fog & 2. Light Pollution. This can be tricky because some of the darkest areas towards the Coastside are also the most heavily inundated with summer fog right now. So, many of the suggested local locations for viewing orbited around the open space preserves perched above the fog (most of the time) along Skyline Boulevard. Windy Hill and Russian Ridge were often cited, though be aware that those locations are technically closed shortly after sunset, which means that many viewers are simply lining the road along the pullouts nears these areas (yes, it was crowded in spots last night). In addition, many people have sought out some of the vistas along the western end of Page Mill Road.

For us, we found our favorite location at the entrance to the Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. It’s very dark, faces northwest and is accessible right off of Skyline…plus there was nobody there!

A view of Neowise from a turnoff on Skyline Blvd just northwest of the intersection with Page Mill Road, taken earlier this month when the comet could be seen in the northeast sky. (Photo by Franklin Schellenberg)

2. Corner of your eye: Be warned—it may be easy to get discouraged at first when you realize just how faint Neowise is to the naked eye. But we found good results with the suggestion of using your peripheral vision to view the comet. Essentially—mark the comet’s location, look off slightly and then come back to it with a sidewise glance. The light trail of the comet becomes more pronounced with this approach.

Also, be aware that it does come into better focus the more your eyes adjust to the light (which means lay off looking at your cell phone).

3. Gear up: Find those old binoculars and dust off that telescope that’s languishing in your garage. For all the visible-from-the-naked-eye talk we hear about Neowise, the truth is you’re better off optically amplified.

4. Be photo realistic: Photographing a low light comet…is really hard. It involves factors such as ISO noise, precise long exposures and literally the rotation of the Earth. The images here and the ones you’ve seen elsewhere are typically taken by professionals with proper gear. (In fact, you’re likely to observe some photo frustration with the Instagram-obsessed masses out there.) So by all means, have a crack at it with your iPhone, but if you’re really dead set on catching a “fallen star” on film, do your homework first.

5. Stay safe. Be considerate: When it comes to stumbling around in the dark while staring at the sky, there is no shortage of hazards out there.Steep hills, rocky paths, distracted motorists, ticks, bloodthirsty mountain lions (well…not exactly on the bloodthirsty part, but be mindful out there). Point is…stay safe.

Also, please be considerate to other stargazers. The brightness on your phone, your car’s headlights, your flashlights are all deal breakers for everyone trying to view the comet. Keep it dark as much as possible. (Plus, there is still a pandemic going on, so in the interest of safety AND consideration, please wear a mask.)

6. Celebrate the celestial sky show: Finally, don’t sleep on everything else the heavens have to offer. As Kevin Angelo’s very recent shot of the Milky Way (see below) reminded us—there’s a lot to see up there. In fact, Foothill College astronomy professor Geoff Matthews provided us with some very current highlights to look for while you’re out there this week: “While folks are out enjoying the night sky…Jupiter is the whopper bright thing visible almost directly to the west, a little bit above the horizon. And Saturn is visible just down and to the left from Jupiter.”

Happy comet hunting 6–5–0…

The Milky Way, as captured from Alpine Road on a recent evening while Neowise was also visible. (Photo by Kevin Angelo)

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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