In a socially distant world amid a pandemic, economic crisis and ever-evolving news cycle, it can be easy to forget about the seemingly small things — like looking up at the night sky to observe the comet NEOWISE.
But the comet, which is officially named C/2020 F3 but referred to as NEOWISE after the space telescope that first noticed it earlier this year, is a once-in-a-lifetime (6,800 years) phenomenon.
Between Wednesday and today, comet NEOWISE is expected to be closest to Earth, passing at approximately 64 million miles away, according to the astronomic organization Earth Sky.
“I think the comet has been overshadowed by other news going on, which is not surprising,” local photographer Ann Driggers said Wednesday. “But the comet, in my world, is a pretty big deal.”
Aspen Skiing Co. posted a photo that Driggers captured of the comet over Williams Mountain to its Instagram account earlier this week. A few days later, SkiCo shared another mesmerizing shot by valley photographer Tamara Susa.
“I think as more photos showed up of the comet, more people were like, ‘Oh, this is a big deal and that looks really cool. I need to go and see it for myself,’” Driggers said.
Photojournalist Laurel Smith echoed Driggers’ sentiment: That in a “normal,” non-pandemic world, people would probably be paying closer attention to the cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the sun and span millions of miles.
“With other astrological events, there was always a lot happening. And I don’t know if it’s because of COVID or what, but I guess sharing a telescope is not necessarily something you can do with strangers,” Smith said.
She said that she is surprised that she hasn’t heard of any local events or watch parties related to the comet. “There’s a lot of other stuff on people's minds, I think, right now.”
On cloudier nights, the Carbondale-based videographer used the mobile app Sky Guide to attempt to capture comet NEOWISE below the Big Dipper in the northwestern horizon. When Smith got the shot on Sunday in the photo published in this paper, the comet was clearly visible from her home.
Smith set her shutter speed to 10 seconds or less, just as she would when shooting stars. “It’s like any astrophotography,” she said. “I know the shutter speed that I like to use when I shoot stars if I want them to not have too much motion blur.”
Driggers, who also spent a few nights searching for the comet on those overcast nights, checks sites like NASA or Earth Sky to get a better idea on precise location and timing. She also uses online maps “to determine a good location with a prominent peak or something.”
On Saturday night, Driggers and friends hiked a little ways up Independence Pass, where she started setting up her camera around 9:30 p.m. Driggers said any time after 10 p.m., “once the sun is sufficiently below the horizon,” allows for most optimal viewing. “I would encourage people to get out and see it while they can,” she said.
The comet is currently about as bright as the North Star and can be observed in dark skies without a telescope or binoculars, according to Space.com.
“I’m seeing these photos from photojournalists I know all over the country, and I think that’s kind of the temptation in it, is having this shared experience,” Smith said.