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News Astronomy

Comet NEOWISE: Catch It While You Can

NEOWISE is photographed above the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Fransisco, California just after dawn on July 7, 2020. Image by Shreenivasan Manievannan

If you are in the northern hemisphere, you have a once-in-6,800-year opportunity to observe Comet NEOWISE – with nothing more than your eyes. (And an alarm clock.) 

Facing the Northeastern sky, stretch out your arm and form a fist. Align lower part of your fist with the horizon. The comet will be visible about halfway between the horizon and the top of your fist.

To see the comet, go outside early in the morning, about an hour before sunlight appears on the horizon, and face toward the Northeast. Hold your fist out at arm’s length (see image, right). Align the lower part of your fist with the horizon. The comet will be visible about halfway between the horizon and the top of your fist.

The comet is visible from Earth because sunlight reflects from the gas and dust it gives off as it is warmed by the Sun. Its current location, relatively near both Earth and the Sun, makes it appear bright to us. The comet appears at approximately magnitude 2 to 2.5, bright enough to see from most places in the Northern hemisphere, even under heavily light-polluted skies as long as you have an unobstructed view of the northeastern horizon. 

Comets are known to be fragile objects, sometimes called “flying snowbanks” so they are notoriously unpredictable. If a comet gets too warm it will fall apart and disintegrate. Astronomers predict that if NEOWISE continues to hold together, it will be visible in the morning sky until approximately July 16. While it appears to be holding steady, the comet is fairly close to the sun and could disintegrate any day. If it does survive it will continue on its orbit, and not pass Earth again for 6,800 years. So look while you can!

This simulated view of the night sky shows the path of Comet NEOWISE in yellow. Dots show the comet’s position on successive dates in July indicated by the numbers. (Credit: Stellarium, licensed under GPLv2)

Fun Facts about NEOWISE

  • NEOWISE is named after an imaging project from CalTech that uses images from an infrared satellite, named WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Explorer) used to detect heat signatures from objects in orbit around the sun. WISE is used to identify asteroids that may be dangerous to Earth (‘near-Earth objects’, or NEOs). Comet NEOWISE was discovered in March of 2020. 
  • The dwarf planet, Pluto, is made from the same materials as comets. The difference between Pluto and a comet is that Pluto is in a nearly circular orbit that keeps it far from the Sun. Comets travel on a different orbital track. At some point in their existence, a comet is bumped out of its orbit in our distant solar system and sent on a different track around the sun.
  • Comets that orbit near the Earth are a fairly frequent occurrence, but a comet that is large enough and close enough to Earth to see with the naked eye is more rare. The last comet that was easily visible to the naked eye from Earth, Lovejoy, occurred in 2011. Before that, Hale-Bopp, appeared brightly to northern hemisphere observers in 1997.