Salt Spring Islanders are fortunate to be living in prime circumstances for witnessing the NEOWISE comet as it transits through this stretch of our solar system.
The NEOWISE comet was first discovered by NASA’s Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope on March 27. It became bright enough to see in the night sky by July, and especially so after passing its shortest distance to the sun on July 3.
The comet is now fading as it becomes closer to the Earth than the sun. Astronomers say there is around one week left to get a good view. The next time it will be back this way after its long orbit will be in 6,800 years.
Salt Spring resident Olivier Lardiere has taken several good photos of the comet in the past week, visiting north island beaches between 11:30 p.m. and midnight on July 13 and 14. Although he is an optical engineer working at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich, he has been taking photos purely for his own interest.
“You don’t need a telescope to photograph the comet because it’s a fairly large object,” Lardiere explained, while adding, “A longer lens is better to gather more light in less time. The rotation of the Earth blurs the sky if your exposure is too long [so] you don’t want to exceed 10 seconds.”
Lardiere’s first two shots were taken at the Hudson Point boat ramp, with his 16-year-old son Nanook. He went to Bader Beach the following night. He has a Canon Rebel SL2 camera mounted on a tripod, and got his shots using a 60mm f/2.8 EF-S lens, with an eight-second exposure and 3200 ISO.
A tripod is necessary to stabilize the camera for the length of exposure needed. However, Lardiere said even an iPhone can capture a shot. In that case, the phone should be propped up on a rock or a log to remain stable. Manual settings are a good idea if available, with an exposure time of at least five seconds.
Lardiere made sure to include the horizon in his photos to give context for the scene. He said that’s not difficult to do because the comet is located low in the sky. The only challenge is to get a view north without having any big trees or hills in the way and to find somewhere dark. Because the comet is found in the same direction in which the sun sets, that means it needs to be at least 11 p.m.
Lardiere found Fernwood Dock was not suitable because of the mounted light, and other locations that look toward the light pollution from Vancouver should also be avoided.
Those people who are not worried about capturing an image but would just like to witness the event will be able to see the comet with the naked eye, but Lardiere strongly recommends taking binoculars so that both tails can be seen. He explained there is one bright feathery tail made of dust, and a second straight blueish tail made of gas that is not visible to the naked eye.
“It’s probably the comet of the decade, if not two decades, so people should make an effort to stay awake a bit longer. There are some nice quiet places on the island,” Lardiere said.
“It looks like people are enjoying it,” he added. “And it’s an easy target for beginners. You don’t need a lot of gear.”