Comet NEOWISE is a once-in-a-lifetime comet that is nearly three miles long and is visible to the naked eye for most of the month of July! NEOWISE is technically called C/2020 F3, but is colloquially known by the name of the telescope which first discovered its existence in 2013.
According to NASA, comets are “frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system.” “Leftovers” is just a general way to describe ‘snowballs’ of dust and gas that are overheated and begin to glow upon reaching a few million miles of the sun. This intense heating is what creates the signature tail you may be picturing as tons of dust and gases are shedding off of the comet’s core. In addition, comets usually contain extremely large quantities of ice and other substances. As of right now there are only 3,650 recognized comets.
Comet NEOWISE reached perihelion on July 3rd, meaning that it was at its closest point to the sun and it became slowly more and more clear. As each day passes the comet’s tail grows in length and its position in the night sky will change. Comet NEOWISE specifically has been reported to have a faint, yellow-tinged, bifurcated tail. All this means is that the tail appears to split rather than coming to a clear point or narrowing towards the end. This phenomenon is caused by a region with a lack of cosmic dust which is pretty rare in known comets. One of the tails is known as the dust tail while the other is made up of plasma created by ionized particles losing electrons (negatively charged subatomic particles). Said dark space has been previously referred to as the ‘shadow of the nucleus.’ Throughout this week Comet NEOWISE will approach the Big Dipper constellation. If you are looking to catch a glimpse of NEOWISE, look slightly below and to the right of the Big Dipper.
Some factors which may inhibit your view of the comet may include poor cloudy weather or light pollution, but scientists recommend trying binoculars and being patient for a clear night. The comet will be visible for most of the month of July, being at its brightest on the night of July 22nd when it reaches perigee, or the orbital point which is nearest to Earth’s surface.
When are the best times to observe Comet NEOWISE?
If you had intended to view Comet NEOWISE in the morning, though it was most visible approximately 80 minutes before sunrise on July 11th through 13th, you still have a chance. The most accessible and striking opportunity to see Comet NEOWISE is from July 14th through the 19th approximately 80 minutes after sunset each night.
Though this particular comet will not be in visible range of Earth for, titularly noted, another 6,800 years, there are still tons of other cosmic events and comets that have and will grace 2020. For instance, Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) was in range for viewing briefly near the end of May and there is a Meteor Shower called The Perseids currently taking place. The Perseids Meteor Shower is produced by a separate comet called the ‘Swift-Tuttle’ and runs from July 17th to the 24th of August. It will be most clear on the 11th and 12th or August when viewed after midnight. There are additional expected meteor showers taking place in October, November, and December of this year as well as a Penumbral Lunar Eclipse to look forward to in November in which the moon will partially darken.
Whether or not you have an expressed or academic interest in astronomical happenings and phenomenons, taking some time to appreciate the marvels of our universe and spend some time outside amidst the current pandemic is exactly what the doctor ordered.