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How to Spot Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE streaks over evergreens in the Mt. Evans Wilderness on July 20th, 2020. Photo credit: Rob Bradley
22 Jul 2020, 3:00 pm

Two comets that raced into the inner solar system earlier this year may have fizzled out, but now Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) is putting on a show for those willing to stay up late or get up early. It’s not as bright as the so called “great” comets like Halley’s or Hale-Bopp, but it has surprised astronomers since reaching perihelion, becoming a naked-eye object for many observers.

Here is an excerpt about the comet from NASA from their “Astronomy Picture of the Day” page on July 7th, which includes a fabulous image of the comet over Lebanon.

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered in late March and brightened as it reached its closest approach to the Sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, late last week. The interplanetary iceberg survived solar heating, so far, and is now becoming closer to the Earth as it starts its long trek back to the outer Solar System. As Comet NEOWISE became one of the few naked-eye comets of the 21st Century, word spread quickly, and the comet has already been photographed behind many famous sites and cities around the globe. The future brightness of Comet NEOWISE remains somewhat uncertain, but the comet will likely continue to be findable not only in the early morning sky, but also next week in the early evening sky.”

This time lapse captured from the International Space Station on July 5th shows the comet rising above the horizon in spectacular fashion, but you don’t have to be onboard the ISS to see NEOWISE. The image at the top of the page was taken on the morning of July 8th by an employee at the National Weather Service branch in Elko, Nevada. The National Weather Service in Seattle also posted images of the comet taken Wednesday morning.

Where and When to Look

There are two better times to try to see NEOWISE: before or after sunset. In early July, NEOWISE was in the constellation of Auriga, drifting to the west. You’ll likely need a horizon free of tall trees or buildings, since the comet is hovering around 5-10° above the horizon before dawn. As the middle and end of July approach, dawn viewing will slowly taper off, but evening viewing should improve as the comet appears higher above the horizon.

Finding the bright star Capella in the Northeastern sky is a good starting point. You can use a number of “sky chart” apps on your phone or tablet to help you locate the star or Auriga.

Once you find Capella, look down and slightly north to try to pick out a small ball of fuzz. You’ll likely have to do this with binoculars or a telescope at first, but the comet’s reported magnitude in the range of 1 to -1 means you can spot it with the naked eye, it just may be difficult. Depending on your latitude and how long twilight lasts, you’ll likely want to start looking about 90 minutes to an hour before sunrise. This will likely present the best viewing and photographing options for NEOWISE.

From July 15th to the 20th, the comet will appear closer to Lynx and Ursa Major, slightly higher on the horizon, but it also may lose some of its luster.

If you’d rather stay up late than wake up early, you can also spot NEOWISE in the evening sky! It will steadily climb higher and rise earlier toward the end of the month, but it also may not be as bright. Look for Capella early in the month to find NEOWISE, then under The Big Dipper (Ursa Major) towards the middle and end of July.

July 12th will likely be the first evening to spot NEOWISE since it should appear about 5 degrees above the horizon in the north-northwest a bit over an hour after sunset.  By mid-July, its altitude above the horizon will double.

July 22nd update: NEOWISE is still visible as a naked eye object and will pass closest to earth on July 22nd. Look to the Northwest after dusk, it should be just under the Big Dipper, slowly dropping toward the horizon in the hours after sunset.

You may want to try to find this comet now, since your next opportunity won’t come for over 6,000 years!

EarthSky and Space have also posted articles about how to find the comet, which include some incredible photos.

There are a lot of other fun space-related events to watch during the month of July. See the full list here.

About the author

Rob grew up in South Florida, where daily afternoon storms and hurricanes piqued his interest in meteorology early on. That interest was fostered by his teachers and his father, who one time brought him onto the roof of their home to watch a funnel cloud move through the Everglades several miles away. ... Load MoreYears of filmmaking and tv production in high school gradually pushed him toward broadcast meteorology at Florida State University, where he joined and eventually led the student run daily weather show. After graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Meteorology, he began his career at KESQ in Palm Springs, California before heading to KFSN in Fresno and WLOS in Asheville, North Carolina. He has covered a diverse array of extreme weather events, including haboobs and flash flooding in the desert, extreme snow in the Sierra, hurricanes, and Appalachian ice storms. He also enjoys telling stories and reporting about weather issues.

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