Starting about Monday, comet NEOWISE’s position favors the northwestern evening sky soon after sunset.
Comets have been prevalent in our skies this year. Two previous columns covered Comets ATLAS and SWAN that held some promise for becoming interesting naked-eye prospects.
But neither survived their close brush by the sun and both of them broke apart and faded, dashing any hopes of seeing a good show.
But back in late March, a telescope with NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) discovered another inbound comet. Named NEOWISE (C/2020 F3), this newly discovered find passed intact during its closest sun approach on July 3 and has since become a naked-eye object in our morning skies. Plus, it looks very "cometlike" with a visible tail. Simple binoculars give a nice view.
Recent days have had Comet NEOWISE in the dawn sky, necessitating an early-morning trip to sites with unobstructed northeastern horizon in order to see the low comet. Even then, we had only a few minutes until brightening morning twilight washed out the view.
But the motion of outbound Comet NEOWISE is taking it from an inconvenient early-morning show to a more easily observed comet in the evening.
Locating Comet NEOWISE
Starting about Monday, the comet’s position favors the northwestern evening sky soon after sunset.
You’ll still need a site with an unobstructed horizon in the direction of northwest, but Comet NEOWISE will climb a little each day and move toward the south throughout the rest of July and into August. It will be at its closest point to Earth, though still quite distant, on July 23.
Even though Comet NEOWISE is bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye, it may not be an obvious object when you first start looking for it over in the northwestern evening sky. Binoculars will help locate it as will its position.
In mid-July, Comet NEOWISE will be located directly below the Big Dipper.
The seven bright stars that form the famous Big Dipper star group are familiar to lots of folks. On clear evenings during the second half of July, the dipper will hang vertically "bowl down" in the northwestern sky. Comet NEOWISE will be located below the lower part of Big Dipper’s bowl. That’s the area of sky to scan with your binoculars in order to locate the comet.
The best time to start looking is about 9 p.m. You’re looking for a fuzzy object with a wispy tail pointed upward. Comet Neowise gets a little higher each evening starting about July 13.
If you search for Comet NEOWISE from a brightly lighted city location, you may not see it well.
If you try to observe it from a location with an obstructed northwestern and western horizon, you won’t see it at all because it will be behind a tree or other obstruction.
Looking with an eye on history
If you’re successful in seeing Comet NEOWISE, you’ll be gazing at the brightest comet to appear for Northern Hemisphere observers in 23 years.
Not since Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 has a comet so bright been observable from our latitudes.
Comet McNaught in 2007 developed into a bright, spectacular object for folks south of the equator.
Decades can separate comets that are both impressive to the naked eye and actually look "cometlike," so the current apparition of Comet NEOWISE is a rare treat. The average person could see about a half dozen in their lifetime.
Like appearances of Halley’s Comet in 1986, Comet West in 1976 and Comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp in 1996 and 1997, the best views of Comet NEOWISE will belong to those folks who make the most effort to see it under ideal conditions. That means observing from dark sky locations on the clearest of nights.
Speaking of clear nights, what a bad time for a bright comet to appear for us!
During the early evenings in the summer in eastern North Carolina, we are more likely to see the bottoms of thunderstorm clouds rather than a historically bright comet. That’s why it’s important that when a clear evening does happen during the next month, we need to take a look. Unfortunately, those rare clear summer evenings sometimes can’t be predicted more than a day or two out.
Further information on Comet NEOWISE can be found on Sky and Telescope magazine’s website at skyandtelescope.org/. Spectacular pictures of the comet made around the world can be viewed in a gallery at spaceweather.com
If you have a question about astronomy, send it to Backyard Universe, P.O. Box 297, Stedman, NC 28391 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.