The astrophotography world has been abuzz in recent weeks thanks to the spectacular emergence of Comet NEOWISE, which is one of the brightest visible objects in the northern hemisphere since the famous 1997 edition of Comet Hale-Bopp.
Before March of this year, we didn’t even know this comet existed. Astronomers picked up an object on the NEOWISE (Near-Earth Object WISE) space telescope on 27 March; by the end of the month, it was properly determined to be a comet and named after the telescope.
While scientists spied this bad boy in March, it didn’t start putting on a show for most humans until this month. By July it was bright enough to be visible to the naked eye. Depending on where you are, it might remain visible for the rest of the month.
This comet’s head is three miles wide and features two tails: one blue and one golden. On 3 July, it achieved perihelion (closest point to the sun) and is now speeding away from the inner solar system. NEOWISE is a long-period comet with an orbital period of nearly 7,000 years. So unless we develop the ability to live forever in the near future, this month is your only chance to catch it.
The imagery some photographers have captured is breathtaking.
Up to this point, the celestial object has been best viewed during the early morning hours before sunrise. But for the rest of the month, the evening hours just after our star dips below the horizon will feature a great show.
According to Sky & Telescope Magazine, here are some simple tips to spy Comet NEOWISE:
“Start looking about 1 hour after sunset, when you’ll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness. Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right.”
I urge you to seek out this comet tonight and in the coming evenings. I know I’m going to attempt to grab a few first-hand visions.
In the meantime, enjoy some fantastic photography. The video, made from time-lapse photos, I’ve linked from the International Space Station below, of its view of Comet NEOWISE, fills me with indescribable awe. Watch the whole video if you can (in 4K, even), but the sun starts to rise around the three-minute mark, and then the comet appears. What a universe we live in!
Further Reading and Exploration
How to See Comet NEOWISE – NASA
A BRIGHT NEW VISITOR: HOW TO SPOT COMET NEOWISE – Sky & Telescope
COMET NEOWISE DAZZLES AT DUSK – Sky & Telescope
Comet NEOWISE Sizzles as It Slides by the Sun, Providing a Treat for Observers – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Comet NEOWISE Photo Gallery – Spaceweather