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An astronomical undertaking … right from your yard


Look, up in the sky. Birds and planes are commonplace, but just now there’s something super up there, too. Discovered in March, Comet NEOWISE is currently visible to the naked eye. Its luminous tail aglow, the retrograde giant continues to draw in spectators throughout Waterloo’s region as it starts to rise higher in the night sky.

Ellen Papenburg of the Kitchener Waterloo Royal Astronomical Society (KW RASC) says the comet will be visible with binoculars well into August.

She notes the astronomical community was uncertain about how visible the comet would be, but they remained hopeful. That hope paid off, as NEOWISE – the size of 54 football fields at five kilometres in diameter – can now be viewed by the naked eye even in city environments.

A “long-time comet observer and amateur astronomer,” Papenburg developed a real attraction to comets during her first viewing in 1970 of Comet Bennet back in her birth country of Holland. Papenburg moved to Canada in 1983 and has actively been viewing comets ever since.

Currently, we remain in the best time slot to view the frozen giant, known formally as C/1969 Y1, with Papenburg offering the following viewing tips: “Have a look into north-northwest direction of the horizon, and about 15 degrees to 20 degrees above the horizon. If you have your arm stretched and you make a fist – it’s about two fists above  the horizon – and then with binoculars you can easily see it if it’s a clear sky. But you have to be somewhere where you have clear horizon, so on a hill or on top of a building, or go out of the city to have a good view on the horizon as well. And then you’re in for a treat.”

The comet’s trajectory continues upward, she added

“Right now it’s climbing towards the Big Dipper, so it comes higher into the sky. And it will be going even beyond, but unfortunately, while it is climbing up it’s also going farther away from the sun and therefore it’s really diminishing brightness.”

A comet this visible is every amateur photographer’s dream introduction to the world of astrophotography. Papenburg suggests that if people are interested in learning astrophotography to turn on a night function on their phone; however, it would be ideal to use a DSLR camera. She recommends an iso between 400-800 and a wide-open aperture with a shutter timing around five seconds. Any longer and a shutter without a tracker may result in blurry images due to the earth’s rotation. A phone or camera can be placed on a telescope’s eyehole, handheld or used in combination with a tripod to ensure the sharpness of the image.

The Kitchener Waterloo Royal Astronomical Society has been conducting socially distant star viewing parties with masks, usually at McLellan Park in Kitchener. It is hard to arrange viewing dates in advance with a need for clear skies, so the organization posts under their Facebook account ‘Astronomy in Kitchener-Waterloo’ when an event will take place.

Papenburg  encourages readers curious to learn more about the local world of astronomy to view the KW RASC website.

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