With everything that is going on here on planet Earth and in the United States right now, I was so excited to read this interesting bit of news about a new visitor to the night sky and our solar system, Comet C/2020 F3, known as NEOWISE. My kids and I have had a lot of fun looking for the comet in the night sky, and so I thought that it might be fun to learn a little bit more about it. Most of us who study the weather are fascinated by ANY cool object or phenomenon in the sky, and I am no exception! I distinctly recall being an elementary school student back in 1986 and learning about Halley’s Comet. It was visible to the naked eye at the time, and returns to earth once every 75 years. I remember thinking how OLD I would be when it returned in 2061 (which doesn’t seem nearly so far away nowadays!!!). Comet NEOWISE will only return to earth about once every 6800 years, so this is something you will not want to miss seeing!
The comet was discovered by NASA’s ‘Near-Earth Orbit Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer’, or NEOWISE in late March. It made its pass around the sun about July 3 and is now on its way out of our solar system. A piece of the Comet’s orbit is shown in the image below.
Like many comets, when C/2020 F3 NEOWISE passed close to the sun, what was normally a rocky mass of an estimated three miles in diameter interacted with the ‘solar wind’ and developed a tail of ionized dust and gas. In fact, most comets actually develop two tails, one of ionized material and one of dust and solid matter, and this one is no different! C/2020 F3 NEOWISE was visible to the naked eye in many parts of the northern United States before sunrise in early July, and after sunset from mid-July onward. With binoculars or a small telescope it was possible to get a really spectacular view.
To help with locating the comet, NASA instructed comet-seekers to look just below the Big Dipper constellation after sunset. The comet was first visible in the night sky where I am, in New York, about July 14. On that first night, my kids and I very excitedly went to a dark location and looked and looked…only to be disappointed that the viewing location was obscured by clouds near the horizon. Each night, the comet was visible slightly higher above the horizon in the northwestern sky, near where the sun was setting. On the second night, clouds again looked to obscure the horizon near sunset. However, about an hour after sunset the clouds cleared and even without binoculars, it was possible to make out the comet and its tail. The comet was closest to the earth on July 22, however at the same time it was moving away from the sun and thus decreased in brightness. Many subsequent nights the comet was obscured by clouds, and as the days went on, the decreased brightness made it more difficult to see the comet with the naked eye.
Not everyone on earth was so lucky to see this rare visitor. The comet was only visible to those of us in the northern hemisphere due to its path relative to the earth. Even to those of us fortunate enough to see it, it was only visible in the sky for a short period of time. If you still want to try and catch a glimpse and own a decent telescope, you have a few more days; the comet will remain observable through early August.