Catching the Comet

This is a NASA photo of Comet Neowise; I wasn’t able to get a decent image myself with my point-and-shoot camera and no tripod.

You may have read my post a few days ago about a fruitless attempt to see Comet Neowise last Wednesday. We were too close to the city, the sky was too light, and trees were in the way. The next two days were too cloudy. But on Saturday, we headed well away from the Washington area, to Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Virginia, a little more than an hour west of Alexandria.

We allowed plenty of time, after the rushed debacle of a few nights earlier, and arrived at the park while it was still light — only to find that social distancing rules meant only 100 people were allowed in the park at the same time, and we were too late. We drove back out to the road leading into the park, where a lot of groups were parked along the edge of an open field with a nice view of the northwest sky. We claimed a spot, set out our camp chairs, and prepared for sunset.

And then a police officer came by and told us all that no parking was allowed along that road, so we all climbed back into our cars to scout out another location.

Not far away, some of those same cars were parking along a main road. We pulled up too, and walked around looking for another viewing spot. Some groups were heading along a path to the right. We liked the look of the area across the street better, so we headed off to the left and set up our chairs along the edge of a large pond, surrounded by fields, with mountains in the background.

The people nearest to us, a young couple, also turned out to be from Alexandria. We talked a bit (from more than 10 feet away, with all of us wearing masks), but mostly we all just waited for dark.

The comet was to appear in the northwest sky, and of course the area behind us grew dark sooner. But as the stars came out to the east and began to spread across the sky, we knew we were in a much better place than the side of the GW Parkway, where we’d tried on Wednesday and could hardly see any stars at all, let alone the comet.

Fish jumped, bullfrogs croaked, and fireflies began blinking around us as stars began to appear in the western sky too, including two shooting stars that I spotted. And finally, first only with binoculars, we saw the comet, faint at first, and gradually growing brighter and stronger as the sky darkened.

Without the binoculars, it was never more than faint. But that didn’t matter. We could see it, a point of white light with a long, hazy tale streaming behind it, like jewelry for the night sky. And with the binoculars, the second tail was visible. I could have gazed at it for hours. I’d hoped to photograph it but lacked the right equipment. I didn’t mind that much. Instead of spending my time worried about exposures and composition, I could just watch. Something so far away brought such a feeling of awe, and of serenity. It will be visible again in 6800 years. So I’m thrilled that we had the chance to see it.

We chose a lovely spot to watch the comet, at the edge of a pond. This was taken at twilight, long before the stars were visible.

4 thoughts on “Catching the Comet

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