Comet NEOWISE is the real deal!
Over the last several years there have been forecasts of bright comets coming. In fact some predictions went way over the top with promises like; “Comet of the Century this Month!” or “Comet Coming Visible in Daylight!” Even this year there have been two false alarms for potential bright comets. Those comets broke up when they got close to the sun. With all these claims of bright comets coming it’s understandable that when more people hear or see them they up they chalk it up to media hype. Who can blame anybody for being cynical?
Comet NEOWISE though is more than making up for exaggerated forecasts. Without a doubt is already the brightest comet since Comet Hyakutake in the mid-’90s. Since around the 4th of July it’s been visible to the naked eye, even in light polluted areas. It’s been mostly visible in the early morning, just before, and during the early stages of twilight. Late this past week though it’s been leaving the morning skies and is becoming visible in the early evening Marshall sky around 10 p.m. toward the end of twilight. This week could be the peak of the Comet NEOWISE show and it passes within 65 million miles of Earth!
The solid nucleus of a comet is usually mountain-sized frozen dirtball made of ice, dust, and rocky rubble that are remnants from the formation of our solar system more than 4-and-a-half billion years ago. NEOWISE is believed to have a nucleus about three miles wide. Most comets spend their entire lives in the deeply cold outer reaches of the solar system beyond the planets. Every so often though for a variety of reasons, one or more of these comets breaks loose and is drawn by the sun’s gravity toward the inner solar system. Depending on their trajectory some comets get caught in very elongated orbits that take them close to the sun and then whip them back out to deep space, not returning again in some cases for hundreds or even thousands of years. A good example of that is the famous Haley’s comet that lives in a 75-year orbital cycle. Many times though comets get completely obliterated by the sun’s intense radiation. Some even crash into the sun!
As comets draw closer to the sun these dirty snowballs start melting, vaporizing the ice and releasing debris. Comets then start developing a large cloud around the nucleus called a coma, and tremendous solar wind pushes gas and debris back, forming the comet’s tail is that can really get stretched out. In some cases, tails of comets can stretch out over millions of miles. As comets retreat from the inner solar system their coma clouds and tails shrink. Comet NEOWISE has already swung around the sun and is on its way to the solar system’s hinterlands not to be see again for about 7,000 years. All the more reason to check out NEOWISE this week!
Right around 10 p.m. or so look for the comet in the northwest sky about 25 degrees above the horizon. That’s about two-and-a-half of your fist widths held at arm’s length above the horizon. At first glance it’ll appear as a fuzzy star but as it gets darker you’ll start to see more and more of the tail, pointing to the upper left. Unless there’s an extreme amount of light pollution where you are you should see it with the naked eye. Countryside dark sky viewing will really make it sweet! Binoculars or a small telescope will enhance your viewing but with just with your God given eyes you’ll like what you see. As evening progresses NEOWISE will slowly approach the horizon, setting around 1am. It’s better to see earlier in the evening when it’s higher in the sky where visibility is greater. If the weather decides to block our view of NEOWISE this week the comet should still be fairly bright next week as well. I have a couple of my best images I took early last Sunday morning. One is with one of my astronomical camera telescope systems and the long shot is with my DSLR camera. Keep in mind that most images of the comet that you run across are usually brighter than they are visually. Nonetheless I know you’ll agree that Comet NEOWISE is true eye candy!
The full astronomical formal name of the comet is Comet NEOWISE is: C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). Comets are usually named after people or organization/observing program that discovered them. The Name NEOWISE is an acronym for NASA’s
Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer program that discovered the comet earlier this year. NEOWISE also keeps an eye out for near Earth Asteroids.
I hate to bring this up but historically many cultures in the past viewed comets as harbingers of war, famine, and other calamities. I hope and pray this isn’t the case with NEOWISE especially with what’s been going on so far this year.
Forget about that though and enjoy the best comet viewing of the century so far!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.