In my artist’s statement on my website, I state that my principal goal as a photographer is to:
“capture brief moments of time, and freeze them for an eternity, so that we can experience that special moment and realize the great joy that life brings to us.
That goal has never been more apparent to me the past few weeks, as comet NEOWISE circles our solar system, reaching its closest approach to earth just a couple days from this essay (Jul 22) at a distance of 65 million miles from earth, or about 3/4 the distance from the earth to our sun.
NEOWISE is a rather average sized comet about 3 miles in diameter, a big dirty snowball made of dust, rock, and ice. It was named after the space telescope project that discovered it earlier this year. It came from the outer fringes of our solar system, and with its highly elliptical orbit, it wont pass by the earth again for another 6,800 years. So, it truly is a once in a lifetime experience.
The last comet that was readily visible to the naked eye was Hale-Bopp in 1997. I was not much of a photographer at the time and lived in the light-polluted suburbs of New York, so my memories of Hale-Bopp are unfortunately dominated by news of the bizarre cult (Heaven’s Gate) that orchestrated a mass suicide soon after the comet appeared. I photographed comet Pan-STARRS in 2013 over the Great Sand Dunes, but I could not really see it without binoculars. That was the last time I was strongly motivated to hunt for a comet with my camera.
Earlier this year, both comets SWAN and ATLAS fizzled after some predicted that they would become naked-eye objects. A couple months ago, comet NEOWISE became the latest comet that was predicted to be visible this summer. This time, the comet exceeded expectations and became the brightest comet to be visible in the US since Hale-Bopp. So, naturally I was excited and quickly planned a few shoots to capture the comet along with the landscape of the Southwest.
As seen in this telephoto shot I took of NEOWISE in the dark skies southeast of Flagstaff, one of the many cool things about NEOWISE is the range of subtle colors it has displayed since its approach to our sun. The head has a subtle green glow that other comets have also displayed.
And since it flipped over from being an early morning object (my photos from Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon) to an evening object (shots from Flagstaff and Sedona) two distinct tails became visible; a broad hazy white tail that has hints of gold, and a narrower bluish tail that shoots off at another angle. The white tail is made of small pieces of the comet itself, dust particles of various sizes and masses that spread out behind the comet, while the bluish tail is made of ionized particles, molecular-sized particles or even free electrons. Fascinating!
In my first shoot of the comet, my wife convinced me to head out on little sleep to the south rim of the Grand Canyon—because what could be more majestic than to see an interstellar visitor grace the skies above one of the seven natural wonders of our planet?
I drove up highway 64 to reach the south rim, and had to dodge small groups of deer and elk the whole way up. I have a vague memory of a set of huge antlers facing me in the middle of the highway. By the time I was nearing the south rim, my speed had decreased from the speed limit of 65 down to about 45. Seeing the comet had to take second seat to my (and the elk) survival.
When I reached the south rim, I could immediately see the comet on the horizon—it was the brightest object in the sky besides the moon and Venus! I watched it descend to the horizon as sunrise approached, and it was an incredible morning!
When I came home and showed my wife the photos, she convinced me to head back north with her to her favorite place, Bryce Canyon National Park. We went for a hike during the day, then got up real early for a trip to the canyon rim to photograph the comet over the grand amphitheater of hoodoos. Another magnificent morning!
Then, as the comet switched over from being a morning object visible to the Northeast to an evening object visible to the northwest, I stayed closer to home, first photographing the comet reflected in the wetlands just a short distance from home. (top image)
Finally, given that my gallery is in Sedona, of course I had to think of the ultimate shot of NEOWISE appearing in the red rock landscape that defines Sedona. Since Bell Rock is generally considered to be a spiritual and energetic epicenter of Sedona (and some believe it is an actual spaceship!) It was a no-brainer to plan a photograph of the comet alongside the iconic rocky monument of Bell Rock. I light painted the trees in front with a headlamp to emphasize the complimentary colors, and when I had finished shooting the scene I put my camera away and just stayed a while to watch the comet in the sky, descending behind the great earthly monoliths standing guard in the darkness. It was another of those spiritual, uplifting experiences that keep me enthralled with the natural beauty of Sedona. And I won’t get another chance to witness this amazing event again…at least not for another 6,800 years.