Comet NEOWISE now visible as it approaches Earth

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comet neowise

Comet NEOWISE on July 15, 2020 in Texas (Courtesy Sean Baber)

(NASA) Observers in the Northern Hemisphere are hoping to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE as it zips through the inner solar system before it speeds away into the depths of space. Discovered on March 27, 2020 by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission, Comet NEOWISE is putting on a dazzling display for skywatchers before it disappears, not to be seen again for another 6,800 years. 

An unprocessed image from the WISPR instrument on board NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, shortly after its closest approach to the Sun. The Sun is out of frame to the left. The faint grid pattern near the center of the image is an artifact of the way the image is created. The small black structure near the lower left of the image is caused by a grain of dust resting on the imager’s lens.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher

NEOWISE passed dangerously close to the sun on July 3, but survived and is now hurtling closer to Earth. The comet is expected to get closest to our planet on July 23, approaching within about 64 million miles.

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of  Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone, there are several observing opportunities over the coming days when it will become increasingly visible shortly after sunset in the northwest sky. If you’re looking at the sky without the help of observation tools, Comet NEOWISE will likely look like a fuzzy star with a bit of a tail, so using binoculars or a small telescope is recommended to get the best views of this object. 

  • comet neowise
Comet NEOWISE captured on July 6, 2020, above the northeast horizon just before sunrise in Tucson. Credits: Vishnu Reddy

For those hoping to see Comet Neowise for themselves, here’s what to do: 

  • 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
  • If you have them, bring binoculars or a small telescope to get the best views of this dazzling display

Each night, the comet will continue rising increasingly higher above the northwestern horizon as illustrated in the below graphic:

NEOWISE Skywatching Chart

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

Comet NEOWISE appears against a backdrop teeming with stars in this processed image
Processed data from the WISPR instrument on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows greater detail in the twin tails of comet NEOWISE, as seen on July 5, 2020. The lower, broader tail is the comet’s dust tail, while the thinner, upper tail is the comet’s ion tail.Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

The twin tails of comet NEOWISE are seen more clearly in this image from the WISPR instrument, which has been processed to increase contrast and remove excess brightness from scattered sunlight, revealing more detail in the comet tails.

The lower tail, which appears broad and fuzzy, is the dust tail of comet NEOWISE — created when dust lifts off the surface of the comet’s nucleus and trails behind the comet in its orbit. Scientists hope to use WISPR’s images to study the size of dust grains within the dust tail, as well as the rate at which the comet sheds dust.  

The upper tail is the ion tail, which is made up of gases that have been ionized by losing electrons in the Sun’s intense light. These ionized gases are buffeted by the solar wind — the Sun’s constant outflow of magnetized material — creating the ion tail that extends directly away from the Sun. Parker Solar Probe’s images appear to show a divide in the ion tail. This could mean that comet NEOWISE has two ion tails, in addition to its dust tail, though scientists would need more data and analysis to confirm this possibility.

Want to learn more about Comet NEOWISE? Take a look at some of these resources: 

Read these skywatching Tips from NASA: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/whats-up-skywatching-tips-from-nasa/

Learn these tips and trick on how to photograph comets and meteor showers: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/news/510/how-to-photograph-a-meteor-shower/

Take a look at these images of Comet NEOWISE captured by NASA missions: 

Explore various comet lessons and activities for educators and students: 

Learn more about NASA’s (NEOWISE) mission that discovered Comet NEOWISE: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/comet-neowise-sizzles-as-it-slides-by-the-sun-providing-a-treat-for-observers 

Brush up on comet science and learn how NASA studies these celestial objects: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/asteroids-comets-and-meteors/comets/overview

Learn more about comet science, how Comet NEOWISE was discovered, and how you can spot it in the sky in this episode of NASA Science Live:

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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