NEOWISE: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now available

NEMiss.news Comet NEOWISE
An unprocessed image from the WISPR instrument on board NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, shortly after its closest approach to the Sun. The Sun is out of frame to the left
July 12th, 2020     Featured General News

“Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.” -Astronomer David H. Levy, Comets: Creators and Destroyers

NEOWISE, a newly discovered comet, is being photographed all over the world.

In March, astronomers discovered the comet, known as Comet C2020 F3 NEOWISE. The name comes from the NASA mission (Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) that was in the right place at the right time to discover the comet.

NEOWISE, considered a fairly large comet, measures about 3 miles across. It has a split tail, visible by binoculars, and has been the subject of some fairly spectacular photos. NASA said it’s “no Hale-Bopp,” the spectacular comet of 1997, but it will be one of the brightest this century.

The newly-discovered visitor will be visible in the Northern Hemsphere for about another month, though you’ll need a telescope closer to August. For now, though, it can be seen with the naked eye under “perfect” conditions of low light polution and clear skies. However, NASA recommends using binoculars to see the tail of the comet.

NEMiss.news NEOWISE in Ontario

NEOWISE, Huron County, Ontario
Photo: Jason O’Young

Instructions on seeing NEOWISE leave something to be desired in the area of consistency. This is due, perhaps, to the short window of opportunity to study this new cosmic visitor, as well as to the fact that two other new comets recently failed to survive their pass close to the sun earlier this year.

According to most sources, the comet is currently visible low (at about 10 degrees above the horizon) in the northeastern sky, about an hour before sunrise. However, we recently discovered that some sources say 2 hours before sunrise, and we failed to see NEOWISE on two trips one hour before sunrise.

By mid July (around July 12-15), the comet will become visible at dusk (just after sunset), low in the northwest horizon. Look low in the northwest sky to spot it then. Over several days is will rise to about 30 degrees over the horizon. Eventually, the morning view will disappear.

Writers for Space.com say the best evening viewing will occur about 80 minutes after sunset in the July 14 to July 19 time frame. By July 19, the comet will appear about 20 degrees from the horizon and will be in the northwest horizon.

As one astronomer said, “Comets are undependable.” But, if NEOWISE remains relatively bright, it might be easier to see in the second half of July during evening dusk, because, at that time, it will appear somewhat higher in the sky. However, those who study comets and similar events suggest that, if you really want to see it, you should go as soon as possible.

Be aware, though, that this is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event. Even if NEOWISE  completes its orbit and survives its next close pass-by of the sun on its way back to our vicinity, it will be about 6800 years from now.

So, if you’re interested in seeing something that won’t be available again for 6800 years, here’s a list of tips for comet viewing. Check out earthandsky.com for helpful illustrations.

  • Allow your eyes time to adjust
  • Use binoculars if you can
  • Look low on the north-northeastern horizon before sunrise; northwestern horizon in the evening
  • Best visibility between rise (~2 hours before sunrise) and about an hour before sunrise
  • The comet will be lost in the brightening sky as sunrise draws nearer
  • The clearer your northeastern horizon, the earlier you’ll spot the comet, and the brighter it will be.
  • Be aware of light pollution sources. Viewers to the south and west of city areas are going to have a bigger challenge seeing the comet than those on the north and east.
  • And, from the experience of NEMiss.News: If you see fog before leaving New Albany on the way to your chosen viewing spot, just go home and go back to bed.

NEOWISE photos from around the world: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/neowise-photos-comet-one-of-brightest-in-decades/

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