Are you after one last chance to see Comet NEOWISE—the “comet of the century?”
You’re late to the party. C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) has been visible to the naked-eye for much of July, but it’s now fading as it moves further away from Earth and back to the outer Solar System.
However, all is not lost because all you need to see Comet NEOWISE this weekend is any pair of binoculars.
Here’s how you find Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone for good.
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Step 1: Get yourself to a dark place
Light pollution is a big problem for comet-hunters. It lowers the contrast between the comet and the darkness, meaning it stands-out far less than it should. That means that you almost certainly won’t now be able to find Comet NEOWISE with the unaided eye within city limits.
However, get yourself to a decently dark location—with a clear view to the north-west that preferably doesn’t overlook a town or city—and you may have a chance.
You can massively increase your chances of seeing Comet NEOWISE with your own eyes by taking some binoculars with you; 10×50 are great for all kinds of stargazing, but anything you have will get you a great chance of seeing Comet NEOWISE with your own eyes.
Step 2: Know where and when to look
Comet NEOWISE is right on the cusp of naked-eye visibility in the constellation of Coma Berenices. It can be found about the north-northwest horizon as soon as it gets dark—about 90 minutes after sunset. However, you can look late into the night; the comet will shift to the northern, then northeastern night sky.
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The trick is to find the Big Dipper/The Plough—that easily recognisable shape of seven bright stars—then trace a diagonal line down to the western horizon. About half way down that line is the approximate location of Comet NEOWISE this weekend.
Here are three star charts, one for the next three nights:
How to find Comet NEOWISE on Friday, July 31, 2020
How to find Comet NEOWISE on Saturday, August 1, 2020
How to find Comet NEOWISE on Sunday, August 2, 2020
Step 3: Use binoculars to observe it
Get your binoculars in your hands. You’re sticking out your elbows, aren’t you? Draw-in your elbows so they’re wedged against your rib-cage. If you can, lean back against a wall or a tree. This will give you some stability and give you a chance of finding—and getting a steady view of—the comet. You can even rest your binoculars on a wall, a rock, or the top of a car.
Now decide where you think the comet is, using these charts, and draw a line down to the horizon. Now put your binoculars on that point and lift them up to the comet. Be patient and repeat until you have our fuzzy little friend in your sights.
The comet appears to be traveling down towards the horizon—to its tail is trailing behind it, higher in the sky.
Tips for observing Comet NEOWISE
The human eye’s peripheral vision is the most sensitive to brightness, whereas the center of the eye is more sensitive to color. So when observing the comet through binoculars, look slightly to the left or right of it, and its tail. That way, your peripheral vision will better detect its brightness. This technique is called “averted vision.”
It also helps to dark-adapt your eyes. Stand somewhere completely dark for 20 minutes—and don’t look at your smartphone—and your pupils will dilate to let in as much light as possible. That way, you’ll see far more stars, and you’ll see the comet more clearly.
Find it while you can because this massive ball of ice isn’t coming back for 6,800 years.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.