Although both showed promise, Comets ATLAS and SWAN fizzled out earlier this year to the dismay of the comet community. However, a new rock on the block has possibly changed the luck of many a skywatcher.
With a magnitude much brighter than 2020’s earlier hopefuls – 1.8 on July 6 – Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, or just Comet NEOWISE, has become visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere. Having reached its closest point to the Sun (perihelion) on July 3, 2020, Comet NEOWISE is now on course to make its nearest approach to Earth on July 23, 2020, at a distance of 103 million kilometers (64 million miles).
When the comet was first discovered by the NEOWISE space telescope back in March, it was incredibly faint, and observers had low expectations for its future. But having rapidly brightened during the spring, its potential began to be closely monitored, particularly when it made its closest approach to the Sun last week. Whilst most comets’ solid, icy nuclei succumb to the Sun’s heat, NEOWISE has emerged intact with a forked double tail in tow.
As one of the most spectacular naked-eye comets seen in a long time, Comet NEOWISE has already been imaged across mid-northern latitudes, and even from onboard the International Space Station.
So when and where do you need to look to catch a glimpse of this spectacle?
Right now, NEOWISE is in the constellation of Auriga moving westwards and can be seen from approximately 80 minutes before sunrise or 80 minutes after sunset at mid-northern latitudes. The comet will not climb particularly high in the sky, so you will need to find a spot free from trees and tall buildings. Perhaps the better views of the rock will come later in the month, as it moves into Lynx and eventually passes beneath the stars of the Big Dipper, but the comet’s magnitude by that point may be too faint to see against the bright July sky.
If you can, it may be wise to set the alarms and get the stargazing apps out soon to try your hand at spotting this comet before it disappears out of sight, probably for the next 6,800 years.