Skychart showing the location of Comet C/2020 F3 just after sunset, July 15 through 23. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of you might have seen a new comet this month and especially this past week. It was visible in the early morning but now it’s visible in the early evening and tonight might be your last chance. This comet – named C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) won’t be back for 6,800 years.

July 22-23 is when Comet NEOWISE will be closest to Earth, passing at some 64 million miles (103 million km) from our planet.

The sky here has been cloudy or light pollution has been too much for me to spot the comet so far. I also don’t have a clear view of the horizon, but tonight I’m going to try to get in position.

NASA suggests that you find a spot away from city lights with an unobstructed view of the sky. Just after sunset, look below the Big Dipper in the northwest sky. Binoculars or a small telescope will help you get a better view.  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 Comet NEOWISE’s splendid split tail.

Each night, the comet will continue rising increasingly higher above the northwestern horizon as illustrated in the graphic above, so I might have my best shot at the horizon tonight.

The comet has been gradually appearing higher each night. You’ll find it near the Big Dipper asterism, as seen in the sky chart.

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission discovered the icy visitor on March 27, 2020, using its two infrared channels, which are sensitive to the heat signatures given off by the object as the Sun started to turn up the heat.

“From its infrared signature, we can tell that it is about 5 kilometers [3 miles] across, and by combining the infrared data with visible-light images, we can tell that the comet’s nucleus is covered with sooty, dark particles left over from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago,” said Joseph Masiero, NEOWISE deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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