Comet NEOWISE as seen from the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. early Friday morning, July 10th. Up until now, the comet has been a morning object only for viewing in the Northern Hemisphere, but it will actually be visible this week in both the morning and evening sky. Photo courtesy Washington Post – Capital Weather Gang (Twitter)
*Comet NEOWISE now visible in the evening sky*
First, there was Comet ATLAS in April which disappointed sky watchers as it broke apart into pieces. Then there was Comet SWAN in May which also disintegrated. And now we have a third comet named NEOWISE and this one is coming through. In recent days, this comet has been visible shortly before sunrise, but now, it has become an evening object as well and will actually be visible at both ends of the day for the rest of this week. Next week, however, will favor evening viewing as the comet will move north (higher) towards the Big Dipper. For the next few days, if you’re an early riser, look low to the northeast sky before sunrise; if viewing in the evening, look low to the northwest sky shortly after sunset.
Sky map for this evening, Monday, July 13th, with Comet NEOWISE now visible in the evening sky. Map courtesy spaceweather.com
Comet NEOWISE is named for the NASA spacecraft mission (Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) that discovered it back in late March. Comet NEOWISE which is officially named C/2020 F3 has been surprisingly bright in recent days and the apparent reason is its rather large nucleus. According to spaceweather.com, researchers working with NASA’s NEOWISE spacecraft have analyzed infrared emissions from the comet’s core and have found the nucleus to be ~5 km in diameter which is rather large for a comet approaching this close to the sun. On July 3rd, Comet NEOWISE made its closest pass to the sun at a distance of around 27 million miles and its large nucleus helped it survive the onslaught of heat and also provided the materials for its visible tail. Its closest approach to Earth will come on July 23rd and it won’t back for nearly 7000 years.
Later this month, Comet NEOWISE will climb in the nighttime sky to a position near the Big Dipper. Sky map for July 24 courtesy heavens-above.com
In recent days, Comet NEOWISE has been visible only in the early morning skies, but it ducked below the horizon this weekend, and is now emerging in the night sky as well and will actually be visible at both ends of the day for the rest of this week. For evening viewing, look low to the northwest sky an hour or so after sunset which would be about 9:30 PM in the eastern US time zone. The comet should be visible with the naked eye given the right atmospheric conditions (i.e., light pollution, clouds), but it certainly would be easier with binoculars or a telescope. It will get higher and higher in elevation in coming days and this will allow it to become even easier to see – assuming it all stays together. In fact, later next week, it will be near the easily identifiable Big Dipper (aka Ursa Major). As with many comets, the icy nucleus is fragile and prone to breaking apart as it pulls away from the sun so take the opportunity soon to view. Even if it does break up, it has certainly put on a better show than comets ATLAS and SWAN earlier this year.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian