It’s time to see a comet in 2020—complete with a tail!
After a few weeks of will-it, won’t-it, Comet NEOWISE appears to have survived a close encounter with the Sun (unlike Comet ATLAS and Comet SWAN, which both fell apart) and has become easy to see in binoculars in the northern hemisphere—and has even become a naked-eye object.
Imaging Comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, Flagstaff, Arizona-based photographer Jeremy Perez described it on Twitter as “an easy naked-eye object, but really rewarding through binoculars.”
Comet NEOWISE was also captured on July 5, 2020 from Austria by astrophotographer Philipp Salzgeber:
It might be wise to catch Comet NEOWISE before it potentially wanes.
It’s destined to be at its brightest and easiest to see in mid-July as it races back to the outer Solar System, but Comet F3 NEOWISE (also called C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is already surpassing expectations for its naked-eye brightness.
In fact, a few weeks before its predicted naked-eye visibility Comet NEOWISE is already being observed and photographed from the northern hemisphere.
However, comets are notoriously unreliable, and it could fizzle-out at any moment. How it looks now could be the best it gets.
Here’s another image of Comet NEOWISE, this time from the UK by space writer Paul Sutherland, who has written a guide to spotting Comet NEOWISE:
Best time to see Comet NEOWISE
The best time and place to look will be about 10º above the northeastern horizon before dawn. Comet NEOWISE is currently in the constellation of Taurus. It will soon enter Gemini, then visit Auriga, Lynx and Ursa Major.
However, as July wears on, Comet NEOWISE should—if it remains this bright—be easier to see because it will be higher above the horizon.
Comet NEOWISE will be closest to the Earth on July 23, 2020, so that’s going to be the peak week to look if it remains bright.
That’s also when Comet NEOWISE will be visible before midnight and during a New Moon, so the night skies will be dark.
That’s all well and good, but it could fizzle out at any time, so have a look soon if you can get up (very) early.
How to see Comet NEOWISE
For now, your best chance is binoculars—any pair will do (I recommend 10×50 binoculars for all kinds of astronomy)—but by mid-July it could well be a naked-eye object. Typically, comets are faint, so comet-spotting usually requires a telescope.
Spotting chart for Comet NEOWISE
Here’s a great chart for finding Comet NEOWISE:
Here’s an image captured by Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner on the International Space Station:
Who discovered Comet NEOWISE?
A long period comet, Comet NEOWISE was first discovered by NASA’s Near Earth Objects Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) space telescope on March 27, 2020.
It got closest to the Sun—its perihelion— on July 3, 2020, which is the most dangerous time for a comet. Often comets break-up and reduce in size around their perihelion, but not so Comet NEOWISE—at least, so far.
Comet NEOWISE is next expected back in the Solar System in about 6,800 years.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.