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Weather Blog: Viewing the Comet “NEOWISE”

This Comet will be visible through mid to late July as long as skies are clear.
This Comet will be visible through mid to late July as long as skies are clear.(WRDW)
Published: Jul. 8, 2020 at 7:28 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 8, 2020 at 8:15 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - We haven’t had a “great” comet visible on Earth with the unaided eye since McNaught in 2007 and Lovejoy in 2011. These comets however were visible mainly in the Southern Hemisphere. The last significant comet seen in the Northern Hemisphere was Hale-Bopp in 1996-1997 which was visible for an impressive 18 months. “Lesser” comets are more frequent in comparison with “great” comets and right now there is a decent “binocular comet” in the dawn sky.

NEOWISE | When was it first seen?

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered on March 27, 2020 about 326 miles (525 km) above Earth’s surface by NEOWISE (Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) which is a space telescope launched by NASA in 2009. The comet was closest to the sun on July 3rd, 2020 when it passed about 26.7 million miles (43 million km) from the sun which is just closer than the average distance from the sun to Mercury. The comet is still being reported as visible by some astronomical observers so it appears to have survived the close encounter with our largest solar star. Marsha Kirschbaum caught this awesome picture below in San Leandro, CA with her 200 mm camera lens.

A picture of the comet "NEOWISE" in San Leandro, California on the morning of July 5, 2020 after its close encounter with the Sun.
A picture of the comet "NEOWISE" in San Leandro, California on the morning of July 5, 2020 after its close encounter with the Sun.(Marsha Kirschbaum)

NEOWISE is not a comet easily seen by the untrained eye so binoculars or some sort of optical aid will be needed to see the comet and its “split tail”. NEOWISE is up at dawn now and it will be highest in the dawn sky around July 11. From there it will gradually approach the horizon each day. By mid July the comet will become visible at dusk low in the northwest horizon. There is no guarantee that the comet will remain relatively bright but if it does, it may be easier to see during the second half of July during dusk as a result of it appearing higher in the sky.

If you don’t have binoculars no worries because a good camera is a great alternative to capture a few seconds long exposure image of the approximate area of the sky. Try this at different magnification or zoom settings and the comet’s nice tail should be revealed.

Checkout this cool video from the International Space Station of NEOWISE on July 5th posted by Sean Doran. (Eddie Irizarry, EarthSky.Org)

When are the best times to see NEOWISE? | Checkout these charts.

July 9, 2020 just before dawn, as seen from central U.S. facing northeast about 45 to 60 minutes before sunrise. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.
July 9, 2020 just before dawn, as seen from central U.S. facing northeast about 45 to 60 minutes before sunrise. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.(Eddie Irizarry)

In the chart above Venus is the very bright planet while Capella is a bright star seen toward the northeast right now at dawn. If you are standing facing east you will see Venus which is the third-brightest object in the sky (after the moon and sun). Look to the planet’s left to see the bright star Capella and NEOWISE will be down to the southwest. We could have some cloud cover across the CSRA blocking our view so do keep that in mind if you make plans to get out and view the comet.

July 11, 2020 facing northeast about 45 to 60 minutes before sunrise. This is about the last date that comet NEOWISE will be visible in the morning. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.
July 11, 2020 facing northeast about 45 to 60 minutes before sunrise. This is about the last date that comet NEOWISE will be visible in the morning. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.(Eddie Irizarry)

Note in the chart above that stars Capella and Menkalinan point to the comet NEOWISE on July 11 just before dawn. This is estimated to be the last date that the comet will be visible at dawn. (Eddie Irizarry, EarthSky.Org)

NEOWISE | Evening Charts

Comet NEOWISE will be closest to Earth on July 22-23, 2020 passing about 64 million miles (103 million km) from our planet. The good news is that if the comet continues looking nice and bright the view during the night of closest approach should be nice. It is slated to be visible during the same time we expect to see a beautiful crescent moon.

By mid July (around July 12-15) comet NEOWISE will appear early in the evening sky. This illustration shows the location of the comet on July 15, 2020 as seen from the central U.S. facing northwest just after sunset. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.
By mid July (around July 12-15) comet NEOWISE will appear early in the evening sky. This illustration shows the location of the comet on July 15, 2020 as seen from the central U.S. facing northwest just after sunset. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.(Eddie Irizarry)
Comet NEOWISE on the night of closest approach to Earth (July 23, 2020) as seen from the central U.S. facing west-northwest just after sunset. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.
Comet NEOWISE on the night of closest approach to Earth (July 23, 2020) as seen from the central U.S. facing west-northwest just after sunset. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.(Eddie Irizarry)

In the meantime it is still a good idea to get up early in the morning this week and try to get a glimpse of the comet NEOWISE just in case it gets fainter prior to the middle of this month. Their is a possibility that the comet may be visible again from Earth but not until around the year 8786! Make sure you try to get a look at this “celestial firework” before it is totally gone. Be sure to check out this article by Eddie Irizarry from EarthSky.org for more in-depth information on Comet C/2020 F3, also known as NEOWISE.

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