Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
July 15, 2020 ·  5 min read

How to See a Comet That Won’t Be Visible for Another 6,800 Years

You may be struggling with FOMO (fear of missing out) if you’re isolated because of the pandemic, but here’s some good news: You can catch this event from your home! Astronomers and casual sky-admirers, take note. A comet is becoming visible this month, without the help of a telescope. Experts call it Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) in scientific terms. It will be visible at dawn a few times in this month of July, then it will become only visible at dusk. 

You don’t want to miss out on this one! 

How to Spot the Comet NEOWISE 

Starting from July 12–15 (AKA today), the comet will become visible just after sunset, and located low in the northeast horizon. If the comet continues to be bright, it may be visible during the rest of the month during dusk as well as the morning, yet it would be a little higher in the sky. 

The comet appears to rise tail-first then comes the bright head or coma. Low altitude, bright twilight, and the light of an almost-full moon, all have been competing with the comet for the sky spotlight. These factors or poor weather can prevent a good view. However, better days are coming for skywatchers. 

The comet will be closest to our planet on July 22–23. 

If you have binoculars, use them. They are your best bet for spotting the comet. Some people who found it with binoculars were able to see it with the naked eye once they knew where to look. But if you want to get a look at the comet’s split tail, binoculars are the way to go. 

If you’re planning to wake up early to catch this comet, don’t worry about this comet being a fizzler. Joe Rao from explains that in the month of June “NEOWISE proved to be an intrinsically bright comet with a highly condensed core. It brightened 100-fold from June 9, when as a seventh-magnitude object it disappeared into the glare of the sun, to June 27, when it appeared in the field of view of the LASCO-3 camera on NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shining at second-magnitude.” [1] 

Read: Man Keeps Rock For Years, Hoping It’s Gold. It Turned Out to Be Far More Valuable

How Bright is the Comet NEOWSIE? 

As the comet moves closer to Earth and away from the sun, it will slowly dim. After July 22, the comet will begin to dim more rapidly.  

The brightness of a celestial object is based on its magnitude. Bright stars are considered part of the first magnitude. Fairly bright stars are ranked second magnitude, and medium bright stars fall into the third magnitude. 

Astronomer Daniel Green at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has forecast the brightness of NEOWISE are as follows: it will be at the first magnitude from now through July 11; second magnitude from July 12 through July 17 and third magnitude from July 18 through July 22. 

The comet has a beautiful slightly curved tail of dust with a yellowish tinge, which will be clearly seen with those binoculars and small telescopes. 

“The dark vacancy that appears to originate just behind the comet’s head and extends up the middle of the dust tail is a fairly rare cometary feature generally referred to by 19th century astronomers as, ‘the shadow of the nucleus.’ Of course, it is not truly a shadow at all, but rather a vacancy in the center of the dust tail, a region largely devoid of cometary dust,” said Comet expert John Bortle of Stormville, NY. 

“In a sense, one can imagine the tail is like a thick-walled hollow tube with its walls impregnated with reflective dust that is being illuminated by sunlight. Would-be observers of the comet should try to spot this rare feature soon, as it is unlikely to be visible once the comet starts fading significantly.” 

How Big is the Comet NEOWSIE? 

“From its infrared signature, we can tell (its nucleus) is about 5 km [3 miles] across… and is covered with sooty, dark particles left over from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago,” Joseph Masiero, NEOWISE deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

If you missed the July 12–15 opening, don’t worry. The July 22–23 viewing period may be even better. 

According to Earth Sky: “It will pass at some 64 million miles (103 million km) from our planet. The good news is that—if the comet continues looking great—the view during the night of closest approach should be nice. Although binoculars might be required for the celestial visitor, it will be visible at the same time we see a beautiful crescent (not too bright) moon.” [2] 

How to View the Comet 

In the morning, 80 minutes before sunrise (the start of nautical twilight), about 5 degrees above the north-northeast horizon. The sky should be fairly dark with minimal interference from the moon. As the comet rises, the sun will be dawning as well. A few mornings after July 18, the altitude may become too low to see the comet in the pre-dawn sky. 

The good news is the comet will become even more noticeable after sunset. Night owls, you may rejoice. After July 12, the comet will be 5 degrees over the north-northwest horizon, about 80 minutes after the sun sets. By July 14, it will be visible at around 10 degrees, and by the 19th, it would have doubled to 20 degrees and have shifted to above the northwest horizon.  

If you’re able to travel away from the metropolitan, away from city lights, the easier it would be to see. As the moon is waning, its light will become less intrusive on the view. 

If you want to see the comet, don’t snooze on this. The next opportunity to view NEOWISE from our plant will be around the year 8786. About 6,700 years. Like the saying goes, there’s no time like the present. 

Keep Reading: Upcoming Meteor Showers In 2020 You Just Can’t Miss

[1] “How to see Comet NEOWISE in the night sky this month.” Joe Rao. Space. July 9, 2020  

[2] “For those at northerly latitudes, Comet NEOWISE up in the evening now, too.” Eddie Irizarry. Earth Sky. July 12, 2020