We still have to wait for another very bright comet, what astronomers call a great comet. But a wonderful binocular comet graced our early morning skies beginning in early July, and now it’s visible in the evening as well, for observers at northerly latitudes. We’re also beginning to receive photos and reports from evening observers at lower latitudes. This morning, for example, we heard from Amanda Evans, who wrote:
We are in the Dominican Republic, Las Terrenas [19 degrees N. latitude], and spotted NEOWISE in the northwest sky, below and to the left of the Big Dipper. If you looked directly at it, you couldn’t see it. But if you look a bit to the left, your peripheral vision could see it clearly and the tail! We were very excited to get a glance. Going to try again this evening …
Thank you, Amanda!
As comet #NEOWISE gets farther away from the Sun, its nucleus gets dimmer as a consequence because it burns less vigorously and the typical turquoise color starts showing. Stack of 40 shots x 25” tracked at 135mm taken last night in the Jura, France. @StormHour @B_Ubiquitous pic.twitter.com/BqhFYIi5FI
— Adrien Mauduit (@NightLights_AM) July 20, 2020
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). It is gradually appearing higher each night, just below the Big Dipper, as seen in the evening chart, above.
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, although some observers might see it with the eye alone. 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.
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
For a specific view (chart) – on a specific date – from your exact location on the globe, try Stellarium-Web.
Bottom line: Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is becoming hard to see in the morning sky, but it’s magnificent now in the evening – in the northwest, through binoculars – for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Not visible from the Southern Hemisphere. Charts and more info here.