When You Wish Upon A Star . . .
— Created July 29, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Melanie Hammons
Early July brings Whidbey Islanders something we look forward to every year – a sky full of colorful Independence Day fireworks. It almost wouldn’t be summer without it.
But it’s rare indeed to close out the month in equally spectacular fashion, especially with a cosmic display that only comes around once every 6,800 years or so.
This year, the natural, nighttime beauty of our summer skies showcased the Neowise Comet (Comet Neowise.) It’s a celestial treat that has certainly lived up to its advance billing and that’s not just because it’s such an uncommon event, says Bob Scott, Island County Astronomical Society (ICAS) president.
“This is the best comet in years,” Scott said. “Unlike some others, this one can easily be viewed without a telescope: But if you have a telescope, or even a pair of binoculars, that’s even better.”
Other comets are more well-known; astronomers have studied Halley’s comet for years: In contrast, Neowise’s discovery is far more recent, only dating to late March of this year, said Scott.
Interested in watching the stars, but don’t own a telescope? Many public libraries now loan them for two-week check-outs, said Scott. “In 2014, the state of New Hampshire pioneered a successful library telescope program. It’s now been adopted by other states, as well.”
Would-be star-gazers can spot a surprising multitude of nighttime events right from their own backyards: But the key to catching the most favorable glimpse of a comet, or any star event, is a clear, dark sky.
“Parks are good, but many close after sunset,” said Scott. “The great thing is, bright objects don’t require it to be too dark.
“Don’t forget the Moon. It is bright and easy to find, and you don’t require an exceptionally dark place to view from,” he continued. “There are over 100 things you can see with a telescope, even from a light-polluted city such as Los Angeles.”
As July draws to a close, so goes the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Neowise before it disappears from view. However, right on the heels of Neowise’s exit, other cosmic events await, says Scott.
One of the best-known is the Perseid meteor shower, an annual occurrence that’s due to peak August 11, 12 and 13 this year. “The quarter moon will come up around midnight, with the 13th being the darkest,” said Scott.
Members of ICAS are deeply committed to sharing their passion for astronomy with the public. They provide guest speakers to schools and libraries, donate telescopes to participating libraries and, in the past, have hosted public star parties at Fort Casey, Fort Nugent Park and Deception Pass State Park.
The ICAS monthly meetings include both local and out-of-state members; new members are always welcome. Visitors are also invited to attend the meetings, which have currently moved online.
The ICAS website hosts a wealth of information, including viewing tips, for anyone interested. The star parties are on hold, for now, but Scott and other ICAS members hope that these can resume soon.
Until then, watching the stars in your own backyard is a wonderful way to spend a summer evening: But you never know where that will lead to, said Scott.
“On my 50th birthday, I viewed the lunar eclipse from my backyard deck. All I had was a spotting-scope from a hunting rifle. But from then on, I was hooked. Now I own four or five telescopes of my own.”
Did you Know?
The acronym “Neowise” stands for Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, a NASA telescope.
Island County Astronomical Society contact information: