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.
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.
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 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.
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.