Elizabeth and I have been trying to see the famed comet Neowise for several days now, as it slowly rises up the northwestern horizon. However, that’s a little hard when you live just southeast of a major city. Because of light pollution, we determined that we were going to have to find a darker sky to see the comet. I spent all of an hour yesterday researching topography maps and light pollution maps to try to find a spot relatively close that we could go stargazing. The final verdict: American Horse Lake, west of Geary in southern Blaine County.
Elizabeth and I left around 7:30 so we would be in our viewing spot not long after the sun went down. On the way there, I fretted about some lingering cirrus from overnight storms the night before. Fortunately, the further west we got the more the sky seemed to clear out. All that was left once we approached were some high clouds far off on the horizon. The drive was just a hop and skip off of 270 down some fairly-well-paved county roads. We arrived at dusk to a quiet, serene lake with just two other vehicles there (one left pretty much immediately when we arrived). The only other sounds came from the birds, cicadas, far-off cows, and… coyotes.
It took a little while for the western horizon to fully darken, so we were treated to the full experience of the night sky unfolding: Jupiter’s appearance over the lake, the first few stars peeking out, and then, in that weird way that the night sky does, the moment when you look up and realize that it truly has become nighttime. I had binoculars, a Christmas gift from my family, and panning them over Jupiter as well as the evening stars turned out to be a great way to kill time. But we still couldn’t see the comet.
Elizabeth took the advice that her mom’s astronomer friend Ed had told her, and took a long exposure on her phone. I was casually staring at the Big Dipper through the binoculars when Elizabeth gasped: “Nolan!”
Immediately I was ready to fight half a dozen coyotes. False alarm, as it turned out. The long exposure had illuminated Neowise in the twilight better than we could see ourselves. However, with the aid of the picture, I was quickly able to track it down in the binoculars. It looked like a star trailing chalky residue behind it. I was transfixed.
As the evening went on and Neowise receded toward the haze/cirrus, it actually got fainter. That let me train my binoculars at the sky and realize just how many damn stars there are. I also got to take a look at a few constellations:
We didn’t stay very long. I’d guess the night sky hadn’t even fully darkened when we returned home, because both of us worked the next morning. But still, last night’s comet viewing was one of the more memorable nights of the summer.