I first saw a comet in 1997, as a 14-year-old on holiday with my family in Mallorca. Hale-Bopp, discovered two years earlier by two astronomers working separately, Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, was visible to the naked eye for a record 18 months, twice as long as the Great Comet of 1811. Its celebrity was given a boost by the burgeoning internet, as its passage through the inner solar system was the first astronomical event to have websites tracking and reporting it to the wider world. I remember looking up at it awestruck from the beach in Port de Pollença.
At the end of March this year a team of astronomers operating Nasa’s space telescope Neowise (the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) discovered and classified a new comet. C/2020 F3 Neowise was the third such discovery in the second-half of March (that’s what F3 means) but unlike the other forty or so new comets spotted this year it has been visible with the naked eye during July. Though not as bright as Hale-Bopp, Comet Neowise (as it’s become known) can be clearly seen in the northern hemisphere in the early morning (low on the north-eastern horizon) and late evening (in the north-western sky).
On Sunday, 12 July, the night sky app on my phone showed that conditions would be good and the sky clear. Not long before midnight I walked the short way to the top of the flood defences on the river near my house. I could see the stars well enough, but no sign of a comet. I moved a little further down the walls in search of a darker spot. As I rounded the corner, moving away from the lights of the warehouses behind, there it was, hanging above the orange glow of sunset.
Throughout history, comets have been hailed as bad omens or heavenly signs: Halley’s Comet in 1066 was taken to signify the imminent death of a king (it appears on the Bayeux Tapestry); a comet seen after the death of Julius Caesar was seen as proof of his divinity; in Norse mythology comets were thought to be flakes of the Giant Ymir’s skull that were falling to earth. As a harbinger of doom Neowise may be a little late for 2020, but watching it I could see why comets have been objects of fascination, wonder and fear for centuries.
Its double tail (one formed of dust, the other of plasma) was immediately distinguishable, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness the comet appeared to get brighter. It is hurtling through space at more than 124,000 mph – it will make its closest approach to Earth on Wednesday, 22 July – but in the sky it looked serene. I stayed and took pictures for an hour or so. It was hard to leave. With my attention focused on an object 80 million miles away, I could have been 14 years old again, standing on a beach in Mallorca and gazing up at the sky.