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There’s still a little bit of time to catch a glimpse of a newly discovered comet as it blazes across the night sky, especially if you have binoculars or a telescope handy.
C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, also called Comet NEOWISE, was first spotted in late March of this year by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. According to NASA, the comet’s nucleus is about 3 miles in diameter and composed of dust, rock and frozen gases left over from the birth of our solar system around 4.6 billion years ago.
When comets near our sun, the increasing heat creates a coma, or a kind of atmosphere composed of particles and gases that surrounds the nucleus. A combination of solar wind and the pressure of sunlight can blow some of that atmosphere away from the comet, forming two tails — one made of ions, and another made of dust — that can extend in the opposite direction of the sun for millions of miles. Imaging suggests that Comet NEOWISE could potentially have two ion tails, as well as its dust tail.
Graphic courtesy of NASASpacePlace via Wikimedia Commons.
Joseph Masiero, who serves as NEOWISE deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that spotting Comet NEOWISE was “exhilarating,” particularly given how rare it is for comets that are visible to the naked eye to pass by our planet.
“I’m pretty sure every astronomer surveying the sky has a secret hope to find the next naked-eye comet, so I feel like our team won the lottery on this,” Masiero said. “These kinds of celestial events really help remind me how big and wonderful the universe is, and how fortunate I am to get to explore it in these difficult times.”
Comet NEOWISE made its closest approach to Earth on July 22 and has grown dimmer and dimmer as it heads back toward the outer reaches of our solar system. But if you want to try your luck over the next few days, find a patch of sky with a minimal amount of light pollution where your view won’t be obstructed by trees or buildings.
Animation by Megan McGrew/PBS Newshour
Then look to the northwestern sky below and just a bit west of the Big Dipper — the comet will be climbing higher above the horizon as the nights wear on. You can also use the Comet NEOWISE app to help you figure out exactly where to look for the comet from your location.
Although you may still be able to spot Comet NEOWISE with your naked eye, a pair of binoculars or a telescope should give you a clearer view. The publication EarthSky also recommends using a high quality camera that can capture the comet with an extended exposure.
If you miss the show this time around, you’ll just have to wait another 6,800 years or so for Comet NEOWISE to make its way back to Earth.
Comet NEOWISE, also known as ‘C/2020 F3’, is seen on July 18, 2020 in Joshua Tree, California. Photo by Daniel Knighton/Getty Images
Bella Isaacs-Thomas is a digital reporter on the PBS NewsHour's science desk.
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