Comets are a rare occurrence for us, but Comet NEOWISE will be a treat for stargazers around the globe for the next few weeks. This comet will be a once-in-our-lifetime viewing and will be visible as it makes way to the far part of the solar system through mid-August.
If you are surprised that you haven’t heard of Comet NEOWISE before you should know that it was only discovered March 27th, 2020 by the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (AKA NEOWISE). The spacecraft was launched in December 2009 to study the heat signatures in space and was expected to have a lifetime of 7 months. It is still operational, and NASA repurposed the satellite in 2013 to provide information on comets and asteroids. Based on the infrared signature, NASA has been able to tell that Comet NEOWISE is about 3 miles wide and is most likely leftover from the start of our solar system 4 billion years ago.
NEOWISE is visible with the naked eye, but it is not bright by scientific standards. It will be better viewed with a telescope or binoculars. Most of the photos that we see of NEOWISE are on a 15-second exposure which highlights the comet’s brilliance. Until recently, it was a purely morning event. Over the course of the next week or so we will see NEOWISE transition to an evening object that will be visible to the northwest and just below the Big Dipper or about 10° above the horizon to the northwest. Best viewing will be after sunset at that point through a good portion of the morning. If you have plans to go check out NEOWISE, make sure that the horizon is clear of any bright city lights.
Comet NEOWISE will peak on July 22-23 when it has its closest approach to Earth. Scientists say that this comet is on a 6,800-year orbital period which is about the time that oars were invented and shortly before there were wheeled vehicles in Mesopotamia.
We are lucky here in Southwest Montana over the course of the next week or so. First, we do not have nearly the light pollution that we see in other parts of the country. Second, we are virtually cloudless for the next few days and clear evenings are expected as NEOWISE makes its close approach next week.