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Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) springs a naked-eye surprise

Fireworks weren't the only thing to light up the sky over Independence Day weekend. Comet NEOWISE joined the party.
RELATED TOPICS: COMETS | OBSERVING
NEOWISEobserverschriscook
The photographer's son points out Comet NEOWISE to his younger sister at dawn on the morning of July 7th.
Image and caption courtesy of Chris Cook
7/8/2020 Update: Our editors recommend trying to catch the comet about two hours before sunrise. Although it will be low (only 1° to 2° above the horizon), the brightening sky before sunrise makes it difficult to catch the comet later, when it is higher in the sky.

2020 has its first naked-eye comet — finally.

This past weekend, skywatchers rejoiced as Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) sprung into view. It’s the first comet of 2020 to deliver the goods after two previous ones failed to live up their billing.

NEOWISE made its closest pass to the Sun on Friday, July 3, at a distance of 0.29 astronomical units (27 million miles or 43.4 million kilometers) — just a bit closer than Mercury’s average distance from our star. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the average Earth-Sun distance.)
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Astronaut Bob Behnken snapped this shot of the comet from aboard the International Space Station.
NASA/Bob Behnken
The comet was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft on March 27 and had been predicted to reach magnitude 3 or even 2.

But observers began spotting it with binoculars last week and it’s already brightened to magnitude 1.5, according to the Comet Observation database.

“The comet continues to be stunning,” veteran astrophotographer Chris Schur told Astronomy in an email. “I was able to easily see it naked eye with about a degree of tail visually. Gorgeous yellow color in the [6-inch] scope.”

Will NEOWISE get a second act?

NEOWISE is currently in the constellation Auriga, visible for the next few days before dawn in the northeast in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s low on the horizon — only about 10° in the northern U.S. an hour before sunrise, and lower still at more southern locales.
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Comet NEOWISE will appear near Auriga the Charioteer in the morning sky for the next several days. This chart shows the comet's position an hour before sunrise on July 7.
Alison Klesman (via TheSkyX)
The comet’s show will take an intermission around July 11, as it ducks below the horizon. It should reemerge in the night sky around July 15 or 16, estimates EarthSky.org. And as it gets higher in elevation, it should stand out more and become even easier to see. By then, the comet will have moved away from Auriga and east into Lynx. Within another few days, it will pass through Ursa Major.
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Astrophotographer Jamie Cooper captured this image of Comet NEOWISE the morning of July 6. The processed image hints at something happening just behind the bright nucleus, possibly fragmentation.
Image courtesy of Jamie Cooper
That’s assuming, of course, that it stays together until then. As with many comets, its icy nucleus could be fragile and prone to breaking apart as it slingshots away the Sun, so you might want to act fast. An image from the morning of July 6, taken by astrophotographer Jamie Cooper, showed a pair of bright spots appearing behind the nucleus. “I hope it’s not breaking up?” he pondered in an email to Astronomy.

Even if it does break up, NEOWISE has already given us a better show than comets ATLAS and SWAN earlier this year, both of which fragmented and fizzled out.

Regardless, you can now catch NEOWISE in the morning sky — so set that alarm and enjoy the view.

Editor's Note 7/13/2020: An earlier version incorrectly spelled out the NEOWISE acronym as Near Earth Asteroid Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.




Want to stay up to date on what's in the sky tonight? We've got you covered:
Check out our weekly observing column, Sky This Week!


Chris Cook

Young observers

The photographer's two children, pointing out the comet on July 7. His daughter exclaimed, "I saw the comet, I saw it!" as her father captured this shot.
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