Sky & Telescope:
By: Bob King
Comet NEOWISE has captivated skywatchers with its stunning tail. Now that it’s moved into the evening sky and climbing higher each night even more people will get a chance to see it.
“Spectacular.” “Amazing.” “Beautiful.” “Awesome.” Those are just a few of the words first-time observers have used to describe Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3). I agree 1,000 percent — this is one incredible comet!
NEOWISE transitions from the dawn to the dusk sky this week. For a time you’ll still be able to view it at both ends of the clock, but by July 18th it rapidly approaches the northern horizon and disappears from view.
For the northern U.S., Canada, and much of Europe the comet is circumpolar and visible all night long this week. It reaches maximum northern declination (+48°) on July 20th when it never dips below the horizon for locations north of latitude 42°N.
It’s all about the tail when it comes to public appreciation of comets. The longer and brighter the better. Although NEOWISE has faded from magnitude +0.5 to about magnitude 2 since early July, its tail has been growing continuously, from a short stub at perihelion to more than 15° long two weeks later. A combination of factors are responsible for the apparent lengthening of the tail, including waning moonlight, the comet’s current visibility in a dark sky, and its increasing altitude and proximity to Earth. Closest approach occurs on July 23rd at a distance of 103 million kilometers.
Evening viewing tips
From many mid-northern latitude locations:
- Find a place with a wide-open view to the northwest and removed from bright city lights in that direction. Scout a location during the daytime so you don’t have to drive around looking for one at night.
- Arrive there between 9:45 to 10 p.m. local time with a pair of binoculars.
- Look LOW in the NORTHWESTERN sky.
- The Big Dipper steps in to assist (see map below)
- Before you look for the comet be sure to focus the binoculars on a bright star or planet first. That will make the fuzzy comet easier to spot.