Get Out Of Bed And See Comet NEOWISE, You’ll Be Happy You Did

Comet NEOWISE was a spectacular sight this morning (July 7) at dawn low in the northeastern sky. I took this photo with a 200mm telephoto lens. Although the comet appeared fainter with the naked eye, the photo nearly matches its appearance in 10×50 binoculars. Bob King

I thought it was going to be cloudy all week but magically the updated forecast predicted clear skies last night (July 6-7). So of course I went to bed at midnight after observing and photographing noctilucent clouds (7th time this season!) and awoke at 2:30 in pursuit of Comet NEOWISE.

I estimated the tail length at about 3° with binoculars. The full extent of the tail won’t be obvious until NEOWISE is visible in a dark, moonless sky, something that will happen next week. I suspect it will be even longer then. Bob King

The night was still, humid and foggy. In fact, fog blanketed my little observing site that features a wide-open view to the northeast. So I drove around in search of an “island” of clarity in the fog and luckily found it just in time. It was 3:20 a.m. — the sky was growing brighter in the unstoppable dawn. I set up a tripod with a tracking mount and got out the binoculars.

Yes, I could see them comet dimly with the naked eye — a delicate streak about 1.5° long with a teeny, tiny “star” for a head. It reminded me of a fading meteor or a punk, one of those smoldering sticks of sawdust used to light firecrackers. But the view in binoculars proved sumptuous. NEOWISE’s head was a bright, yellow pea sprouting an elegant, pale orange tail. The way the tail swept back, arching toward the star Theta Aurigae, made my heart melt. Just beautiful.

Comet NEOWISE (center) competes with a bright display of noctilucent clouds on July 5 over Port Angeles, Washington. Details: 1/3-second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 3200, Nikon D3s 70mm. Rick Klawitter

Way off to the right of NEOWISE I could see Venus and near it the star Aldebaran in Taurus. Comparing the comet to Aldebaran (magnitude 0.9) I estimated the comet’s brightness at magnitude 1.4, by far the brightest comet to grace our skies since Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) in March 2013.

I first saw NEOWISE in binoculars around 3:10 a.m. very, very low through the fog. By 3:25 a.m. (2 hours before local sunrise) I could easily spot it with the naked eye. I don’t want to give you the impression it was super-easy to see — you had to know where to look — but once seen I never lost it. And though the sky grew brighter and brighter, it was partly offset by the comet climbing higher and higher. I was able to follow it with my eyes till about 4:15 a.m. and in binoculars until 4:35 a.m., only 45 minutes before sunrise.

I took this with a 600mm lens to better show the tail structure with its dark lane and two bright sides. Bob King

I also looked at it through a portable 10-inch telescope. The colors were even more intense, and the tail was clearly bifurcated — split in two with a dark channel separating both halves. I could also see the split in binoculars. It’s unclear to me at the moment how the dark channel forms. But it seems to happen in comets that are actively producing massive quantities of dust whether because they’ve passed close to the sun or due to cracks that cause outbursts of fresh material.

I want you to see Comet NEOWISE while it is brightest and best. Nothing would make me happier. So set your alarm to go out about 2 hours before sunrise. You’ll need to find a spot in advance with a good view low down in the northeastern sky. You key guide star is the unmistakeable Capella in the constellation Auriga, located nearly 2 fists high at the start of dawn. Start there and use the map below to get there. Remember that the comet will appear as a dim streak with the naked eye (at least at the moment) but much nicer in binoculars or a small telescope.

Use this map to help you track down Comet NEOWISE in the early dawn sky. Stellarium with additions by the author

Starting about July 11 (Saturday) the comet will start to transition into the evening sky. I’ll have a fresh map to help you find it then, too. While you absolutely don’t need a telescope by all means bring binoculars. I hope the sight will thrill you as much as it did me.

33 Responses

  1. Brian Adams

    Beautiful images Bob! Could you please share the exposure, ISO and f-number for the 200 mm shot?

    I was unable to observe it with 7×50 binoculars or unaided eye on the mornings of July 3rd and 4th, due to clouds and fog, but on the 4th I was able capture it using a 55-200 mm lens in a few exposures with a DSLR when it peeked through some fortuitous holes in the cloud cover.I hope to have another shot at it tomorrow morning.

  2. Great job Bob! I got out this AM about 1.5 hrs before sunrise. Some low clouds interfered for a while, but I was finally able to see it in my 15x70s hand-held. I could not see the dark lane in the tail, but THE VIEW WAS GREAT! I was in the ‘burbs viewing eastward toward the greater metro area, so I was not able to see it naked-eye. It reminded me of how C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS looked, and yes, it was probably the brightest comet before this one (I had to look thru my notes on the last 16 comets I’ve observed since then, and I agree. C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy was probably the next best). Hope this comet hangs on and gives us a good show in moonless evening skies in about one week or so. It is a pretty comet right now, and while it is tough to get up early this comet makes it worth the while.

      1. Bob, I’m in Lake St Louis, a suburb 30-some miles west of St Louis. It is an “orange” zone. I viewed the comet the last 3 mornings. Today the sky was nearly crystal-clear and I viewed the comet naked-eye before ever getting the binoculars out. No need to use the binos to hunt for it. I was able to see it naked-eye here from about 4:22 to about 4:55 AM, but those last 5 minutes it was diminishing rapidly. Had I known there would be no haze this morning, I probably could have viewed it another 10+ minutes prior to 4:22 AM.

  3. Richard K. Mitchell

    Here in Albuquerque, the comet was a beautiful sight this morning. I could see it fairly easy with the naked eye but not an obvious sight, but very impressive sight in 10×50 binoculars. So I would encourage anyone in the “burbs” or a smaller city to give it a try. Just be careful and stay safe!

  4. Edward M Boll

    I hope to see it if these rain clouds would ever clear. A week of these is more than enough and I got my feet wet this morn even wearing shoes to shut a window outside.

  5. Edward M Boll

    It was supposed to clear tonight but never did. It reminds me of April of 75, 3 clear days out of 30!

  6. Alonso

    Greetings, Mr. Bob. Thank you for the post. Here, in central México these days are very cloudy.
    I hope soon can grab my 15 x 75 binoculars and see this wonder.
    And im waiting for your pictures of another grand cake to celebrate the occasion. (imagine: a cake in a the shape of a comet !!!!!)

  7. Edward M Boll

    Another clouded out morn. I’m glad that F3 is still mag 2. I’ll look again tomorrow.

  8. Pier Bravin

    Would it be possible to see it from London? I wish to introduce my granddaughter, Kiki, to this evenly marvel. Regards from the UK, Pier.

    1. Pier,
      Absolutely you can see it from London although I’d recommend driving north of the city’s worst light pollution for a reasonably good northeastern sky. You can start looking as early as 1:30 very low in N-NE sky. 2-3 a.m. would be best I think. Use my map to point you where to look.

  9. Lilian

    Thank you! Just after 2.30 this morning i got up. I did not feel much like traipsing across the moors but decided it would be worth it. Curious i glanced out of a bedroom window to the NE and WOW!, i could see it even without my glasses. And an excited run for the binoculars confirmed it. The horizon was only just beginning to lighten and quite a way up above the horizon, there it was, bright as a star and with a huge tail. I would never have gotten to see it without your articles Bob, so HUGE thank you. I shall be up again tomorrow morning,

      1. Patrick

        Bob, Got out early this morning to check it out. Absolutely fantastic!! First comet with a tail I have ever seen. Only seen “fuzzy snowballs” in the past.

  10. J

    Good morning,
    Lovely view at 3:45 am from Bellevue,Wa.
    So close to bright city lights, yet visible without binoculars, thrilling! Thank you for your post.

  11. Janice Ander

    When will the comet be visible in Cherokee/ Bryson City area for naked eyes? I have binoculars, hoping for it’s grand show without them, since new learning to use to birdwatch. Halle Bopp’s photo is framed on my wall, be great to add C/2020. Times/ dates best please Jim, your our comet hero to share with us! Respectfully Yours, Janice oh what a delightful sight to see right before our eyes!

    1. Hi Janice, yes, you can see it very low in the northeastern sky about an hour and 45 minutes before sunrise in the very early dawn. Use the map you’ll see in my blog today to find it.

  12. Robert L Haarman

    Do you have a email group I can join to receive your postings?
    I think I just did that. Thanks

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