We still have to wait for another very bright comet, what astronomers call a great comet. But a wonderful binocular comet has been gracing our early morning skies, and now it’s visible in the evening as well, for observers at northerly latitudes such as those in the northern U.S. and Canada. Later this month, the comet will become visible in the evening for those at latitudes like those further south in the U.S. Sorry, Southern Hemisphere observers, this comet isn’t visible to you. Many observers have reported that – once you spot it with binoculars – you can remove them and glimpse this comet as a fuzzy object, using only the unaided eye. Using binoculars or other optical aid is a must, though, if you want to see this comet’s splendid split tail. The comet is called C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). If it remains at its current brightness, it might be even easier to spot in the evening during the second half of July than it has been in the morning sky so far. The comet will be gradually higher each night, just below the Big Dipper, as seen in the evening charts, above and below.
Check the bottom of this post for a few photos, but – for many, many glorious shots of the comet from people throughout the Northern Hemisphere – visit EarthSky Community Photos. Thank you to all who have submitted photos!
Be sure to bring along binoculars if you want to see Comet NEOWISE. If you don’t have binocs but do have a good camera, a great alternative is to capture a few seconds long exposure image of the approximate area of the sky. Try at different magnification or zoom settings, and the results should reveal the comet’s nice tail.
Comet NEOWISE will be closest to Earth on July 22-23, 2020. It will pass at some 64 million miles (103 million km) from our planet. The good news is that – if the comet continues looking great – the view during the night of closest approach should be nice for many of us at temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Although binoculars are required for the celestial visitor, it will be visible at the same time we see a beautiful crescent (not too bright) moon.
Want a morning chart? The comet is becoming harder to see in the morning now. Try going outside about an hour before sunrise, and don’t just look once … look as the minutes tick by for the comet to rise high enough into the dawn sky for you to spot it. There’s a very narrow window for spotting it, when it’s still dark enough in the sky to see the comet, but when the comet has risen high enough above your horizon to be visible. Again, observers at northerly latitudes will have the best view. The chart below was for around mid-July (July 13 specifically, but it’ll work for a week or so after that date, too):
Let’s look at some more photos! And be sure to check out EarthSky Community Photos for still more. We are receiving many, many images of the comet each day.
Comet NEOWISE has even been seen from the International Space Station!
Comet NEOWISE from ISS, July 5th pic.twitter.com/pAbGdtchAc
— Seán Doran (@_TheSeaning) July 7, 2020
Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner says the comet’s tail is clearly visible from the space laboratory’s cupola. Look at this amazing image:
Alessandro Marchini of the Osservatorio Astronomico Università di Siena posted these photos to Facebook:
Here is another great image by Philipp Salzgeber from Austria:
Comet C/2020 F3 Neowise image taken with 300mm lens, f/5.6, Nikon Z6, 0,4s, ISO 1600 from Wolfurt / Austria. The comet was clearly visible with the unaided eye, it was beautiful in the 10×50 binoculars. #comet #neowise pic.twitter.com/hBGeJZKtie
— Philipp Salzgeber (@astro_graph) July 5, 2020
Niccole Neely posted this photo and said, “Here is another shot of #CometNeowise…this time a bit closer! Look at that beautiful tail! Taken in Arizona this morning!”
When was NEOWISE first discovered? Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered on March 27, 2020 – not from Earth’s surface – but from by a space observatory some 326 miles (525 km) above Earth’s surface. It’s named for its discoverer, the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, aka NEOWISE, which was launched by NASA in 2009.
Comet NEOWISE was closest to the sun on July 3, 2020, passing at about 26.7 million miles (43 million km) from the sun, or a bit closer than the average distance from the sun to Mercury. Unlike some comets, it survived the close encounter with our star and went on to become widely seen by binocular observers and astrophotographers.
How big is Comet NEOWISE? Joseph Masiero, NEOWISE deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, commented recently:
From its infrared signature, we can tell (its nucleus) is about 3 miles (5 km) across … and is covered with sooty, dark particles left over from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
In other words … a typical comet!
How bright is Comet NEOWISE? In early July, reports began indicating that Comet NEOWISE has a visual magnitude between 1 and 2. If you know the magnitude scale, where smaller numbers indicate brighter objects, that may sound very bright! However, stars are pinpoints of light, whereas the light of comets is diffuse (spread out). So, for comets, a magnitude of 1 or 2 is fainter than it would be for a star of equal magnitude. The reason is, the comet’s light is distributed over a relatively wide area, instead being concentrated in a single point.
Is Comet NEOWISE a great comet? There’s no strict definition for great comet, but most agree that Hale-Bopp – widely seen by people in 1997 – was one. NEOWISE is nowhere near as bright as Hale-Bopp was. Unlike Hale-Bopp, NEOWISE will never be easily visible to the eye. So it’s not a great comet. But it’s a beautiful binocular comet, absolutely the best comet we’ve had for casual observers in some time.
Don’t miss it.
And, by the way, forget about making plans to view this comet’s next apparition in Earth’s skies. Comet NEOWISE might be visible again from Earth, but not until around the year 8,786!
— Astronomie München (@munichspace) July 10, 2020
Long exposure images show even more details:
— earth is beautiful (@earth__photos) July 12, 2020
Bottom line: Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is basically a binocular object, although some experienced observers with pristine skies are reporting they can see it with the eye alone. Around July 12-15, the comet began to appear in the evening sky as well as the morning sky. This post has information and charts that will help you see the comet.
Eddie Irizarry of the Sociedad de Astronomía del Caribe (Astronomical Society of the Caribbean) has been a NASA Solar System Ambassador since 2004. He loves public outreach and has published multiple astronomy articles for EarthSky, as well as for newspapers in Puerto Rico. He has also offered dozens of conferences related to asteroids and comets at the Arecibo Observatory.
Asteroid 33012EddieIrizarry, a 7.8 km space rock, has been named in his honor.