We still have to wait for another very bright comet, what astronomers call a great comet. There’s no strict definition for great comet, but everyone agrees that Hale-Bopp – widely seen by people in 1997 – was one. Lesser comets are moderately frequent, though, and, right now, there’s a nice binocular comet in the dawn sky. Some skilled observers have reported that – once you spot it with binoculars – you can remove them and see the comet with the unaided eye. Using binoculars or other optical aid is a must, though, if you want to see this comet’s split tail. The comet is called C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). In this post, we provide charts (below) that can help you see this celestial visitor.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered on March 27, 2020, from some 326 miles (525 km) above Earth’s surface by NEOWISE, the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which is a space telescope 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. Observers are still reporting seeing it, and so it appears to have survived the close encounter with our star.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is up at dawn now and should remain in the dawn sky until around July 11. Then it will temporarily disappear below the horizon while making a transition to the early evening sky, becoming visible again in the evening around July 15-16.
If the comet 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.
During the first days of July, Comet NEOWISE is a little tricky to catch because it appears not against a dark sky, but very close to the northeastern horizon just as dawn is brightening the sky.
Yet skilled astrophotographers are catching it and producing some glorious photos.
Here are a few charts for early this week that might help you see the comet. Again, it will probably be best seen in binoculars. 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.
Now, take a look at these charts. The first one shows the planet Venus, which is the third-brightest object in the sky (after the moon and sun). If you are standing facing east, looking at Venus, look to the planet’s left to see the bright star Capella. The comet will be below Capella on the morning of July 6. Then note that it moves toward the north (to the left, as you stand facing east) with respect to Capella on the mornings of July 7 and 8.
As of early July, reports indicated that Comet NEOWISE has a visual magnitude between 1 to 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.
Now let’s look at some more photos!
Comet NEOWISE has been seen even from the International Space Station! Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner says the comet’s tail is clearly visible from the space laboratory’s cupola. Look at this amazing image:
— Ivan Vagner (@ivan_mks63) July 4, 2020
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
Now look below for are a couple of evening charts, for later this month. Comet NEOWISE will be closest to Earth on July 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. Although binoculars might be required for the celestial visitor, it will be visible at the same time we see a beautiful crescent (not too bright) moon.
In the meantime, it’s still a good idea to get up early in the morning this week and try for a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE while it’s still relatively bright, just in case it gets fainter later in the month.
And 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 year 8,786!
Bottom line: Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is basically a binocular object, although some experienced observers with pristine skies are reporting they can see it with the eye alone. This post has information and charts that will help you see the comet.