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Comet reminds us of the big picture

A view of Comet NEOWISE from Meadowlakes, Texas

The Rev. Harold Vanicek recently captured this photo of the comet NEOWISE from Meadowlakes. The comet, which can be seen with a pair of binoculars, is still visible in the night sky, usually from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. This photo was taken when the comet was more visible in the early morning sky. Photo by Harold Vanicek

Amid the stress and strife of life right now, the Rev. Harold Vanicek has a little advice: Look to the heavens.

Particularly the northwest sky from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., just below the Big Dipper and above a clear horizon. 

You might spot the comet NEOWISE.

All you need is a pair of binoculars, Vanicek said.

“(The comet) kind of came onto my radar a couple of weeks ago when it started making the news,” he said. 

The comet’s official name is C/2020 F3, but it’s being called NEOWISE after the NASA astronomical space telescope that first detected it. 

According to NASA officials, the last comet this visible in the night sky was probably Hale-Bopp in the mid-1990s. 

“Most comets, when they go around the sun, they get pulled apart, but (NEOWISE) made it all around,” Vanicek said. 

A comet is basically remnants from the creation of the solar system pulled together to form a “dirty snowball,” as one of Vanicek’s University of Texas professors once described them.

To view NEOWISE, look to the northwest with a pair of binoculars or a telescope and locate the Big Dipper. Currently, the constellation is in a vertical position with the ladle side closest to the horizon. 

“Go straight down from the Big Dipper to the horizon, and you should be able to find it,” Vanicek said. 

One tip he offered was not to look where you think the comet should be but rather use your peripheral vision to pick it out of the sky. 

People should be able to see NEOWISE and its tail just using binoculars. The comet will be a bit higher in the night sky each day and remain visible through at least the end of July. 

“But astronomers say comets are fickle, and they can disappear,” Vanicek said. 

NEOWISE passes closest to the earth, a mere 64 million miles away, on July 22-23. It will be another 6,800 years before it returns. 

To photograph the comet, Vanicek said you’ll need a tripod, a camera that allows for manual control, and a good lens. He said to turn your camera’s ISO to a fairly high setting (1600 is a good starting point), set the aperture to the widest (the lower the number, the wider the aperture), and select a shutter speed for the best exposure. Once you have a good composition, drop the ISO to a lower setting and set a longer shutter speed (leave the aperture at its previous setting). 

Since the earth is rotating, Vanicek said not to push the shutter speed too long, only a few seconds or so, otherwise the comet and stars become “soft” due to the movement of the planet. 

It takes a bit of experimenting.

Vanicek, who is the pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Marble Falls, earned a degree in engineering before attending seminary. Science remains a big part of his life, and he believes it is compatible with faith.

During a pandemic and other unrest, he said it can take something like a comet to remind us that God works in a much longer timeframe. 

“This reminds me to step back and realize you’re a part of a bigger creation,” Vanicek said. “Maybe we can all just kind of step back and remember that, and, you know, just be kind to each other.”

If you take photos of comet NEOWISE and post them, tag DailyTrib and 101HighlandLakes, and we’ll share them as well.