As if a lunar eclipse and super-bright Venus weren’t enough of a celestial display, a recently discovered comet has been streaming across the sky, providing yet another stargazing opportunity this month.
This comet, known as C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), was discovered by astronomers using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer on March 27. It survived its closest encounter with the sun on July 3, and it’s still going strong about 64 million miles from the Earth’s surface.
“From its infrared signature, we can tell that it is about 5 kilometers [3 miles] across, and by combining the infrared data with visible-light images, we can tell that the comet’s nucleus is covered with sooty, dark particles left over from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago,” said Joseph Masiero of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
Your best chance of spotting it is at dusk low in the northwest horizon, though it will be moving higher towards the end of the month. You should also use a pair of binoculars or a telescope, as it might be difficult to make out with the naked eye until, weirdly, you’ve seen it with assistance.
C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) has a split tail that you can see in many of the photos of the comet that have made it to social media, including this one from NASA.
The NASA Picture of the Day for July 09, 2020 is Noctilucent NEOWISE pic.twitter.com/leCuyJwVEO
— Astronomy POTD (@NASAPOTD) July 9, 2020
The astronauts on the International Space Station also enjoyed their unique view of the comet.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) July 7, 2020
There are plenty more great shots of this comet floating around on the internet, but none replicate the experience of seeing it for yourself.
C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) will be closest to Earth on July 23, and it should stick around through mid-August when it makes its way across Earth’s orbit into the outer parts of the solar system. Once that happens, it won’t be visible from Earth again until 8786.