It’s about as bright as a typical star, easily visible with the naked if you escape city lights. It’s even clearer with binoculars or a telescope. What’s more, its tail has brightened some too, fanning out several degrees pointing away from the sun.
Astronomers recommend using a pair of binoculars to spot the comet, but — once you’ve found it — odds are you can probably ditch them and enjoy the spectacle with the unaided eye.
Comets make elliptical paths around the sun in orbits that can span decades or even centuries. Some burn up as they make their closest pass at the center of our solar system, but the intrepid Neowise — first discovered by astronomers in March — managed to survive its close solar encounter July 3.
Through the weekend, your best bet to catch Neowise would entail sauntering outdoors to a dark location about an hour before sunrise. Neowise won’t be too high above the horizon, so ensure that you have a clear, unobstructed view. But look to the east-northeast, and you’ll catch the starlike comet with a blurred tail smudged upward and right.
“[I]t’s dim so finding that sweet spot between it rising shortly after 4 a.m. when the sky is really dark, and 5 a.m. when it’s above the treeline but it begins getting lost in the twilight, is key to seeing it,” wrote NASA ambassador Tony Rice in an email.
Most recently, the comet was reported to have a forked tail. One component was made of ionized gas, while the other was dusty in nature. The dust tail is brighter.
A bit to the right, you’ll see Venus — just about as bright as it can get — hovering brighter than any other star or planet in the sky.
You’ll see a similar lineup through at least early next week. A stunning view of Neowise was even captured onboard the International Space Station:
Peter Forister, a meteorologist and masters student studying geography at Virginia Tech, ventured into rural Virginia early Thursday morning in hopes of glimpsing Neowise. He was not disappointed.
“I planned out my trip with star-tracking software and Google Maps to find wide open views to the northeast,” wrote Forister in a Twitter direct message. “I got to my spot at 4:30 a.m., and after about 60 seconds of my eyes adjusting to the dark skies, I spotted the comet just above the low fog bank.”
He noted that, while the comet “wasn’t super bright,” it was easily visible with about the same luminance as a bright star — “with a long orange tail.”
“It’s an absolutely beautiful sight!” wrote Forister, who says it’s a first of its kind in his 15-plus years of stargazing. “I’ve seen other small comets before, tiny dots in the sky with a faint green haze around them, but this event blows them out of the water.”
Next week will also afford evening views of Neowise, too. That’s great news if you’re not an early riser. Beginning Monday, look to the west-northwest after sunset, and you’ll probably be able to spot it.
Time is of the essence, though. Neowise is running away from the sun and could soon begin slowly fading into oblivion. There’s an outside chance solar heating could cause the comet to markedly brighten, but astronomers say we shouldn’t bet on it. Considering its unpredictable nature, seizing the opportunity to view it soon rather than later may be better.
The comet was named after the NASA satellite that discovered it, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The comet will make its closest pass near Earth on July 22, but no need to fret; it will still be 64 million miles distant.
The comet’s infrared signature was enough for NASA scientists to estimate it at about three miles in width. They believe the comet is composed of materials as old as the solar system.