The Comet NEOWISE was photographed from atop Cadillac Mountain by Bill Townsend Sunday night. Townsend said he used a 15-second exposure on his camera to make the comet look brighter. Seen with the naked eye or through binoculars, Townsend said, the comet “looks like a smudge.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL TOWNSEND

Once every 6,800 years, Comet NEOWISE pays a visit

ACADIA NAT’L PARK—On any clear evening this past week, night sky watchers were outside with binoculars, telescopes and cameras to view the Comet NEOWISE. One popular spot for viewing the comet was Cadillac summit, which offers an unobstructed view of the night sky.  

The Comet NEOWISE, a visitor to our side of the solar system that won’t be back for another 6,800 years, was discovered on March 27, according to NASA. The comet was named for the high-powered space telescope through which it was first seen: Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE).  

Since its discovery four months ago, the comet has orbited closer, passing closest to the sun on July 3, according to NASA. The comet is now visible to the naked eye as it heads toward the outer solar system. 

“It’s visible, but it’s getting fainter every night,” said Bar Harbor resident Bill Townsend, who viewed the comet from Cadillac Mountain last Sunday. “It’s halfway between the Big Dipper and the horizon,” he said, noting that binoculars help spot the object in the sky. In real life, it doesn’t look like the photos, which are long exposed, he said. “It looks like a smudge.” 

Bar Harbor resident Joe Pagan was also on Cadillac Mountain late Sunday night, and said the comet was visible until around midnight. “For me, being able to view something that’s once in a lifetime,” he said, “is a moving experience.”  

For would-be comet viewers, Pagan recommends finding “a dark area away from city lights. Cadillac is great.” He also had luck viewing the comet from Jordan Pond.  

Townsend, a naturalist and former park ranger, said the exciting thing about this comet is “it’s the brightest one in 25 years.” Townsend noted that it can be hard to predict which comets will turn out bright. “There was one that was supposed to be good about a month ago,” Townsend said, “but it evaporated” when it got close to the sun. 

According to the NASA website, comets are “frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system composed of dust, rock and ices.” Like everything else in the solar system, comets orbit the sun. Their oblong orbit paths take them by turns very far from, and then extremely close to, the sun.  

While rounding the sun in close proximity, a comet heats up and begins to spew gases and dust, forming a glowing head and tail. The tail can stretch for millions of miles. NASA estimates there are billions of comets orbiting the sun. Of these, 3,652 have been discovered. 

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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