Comet NEOWISE Hits It Out Of The Park!

Comet NEOWISE makes a lovely appearance above a summer landscape in Duluth, Minn. at dawn on July 8. Bob King

With no baseball season yet underway we’ll have to depend on Comet NEOWISE for home runs for the time being. I hope you’ve had the opportunity to this delicate spectacle. If you’ve been unable to do so because of schedule or weather, hang in there. The comet will be around for a while. Although it’s slowly fading (now around magnitude 1.5-2) it’s still very obvious in binoculars and faintly visible with the naked eye even from suburbs and some cities.

Here’s a report I received today from Jim Twellman, one of our readers:

“I’m in Lake St Louis, a suburb 30-some miles west of St Louis. 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.”

Dave Gallant of Thunder Bay took this photo at dawn on July 8th. I think it’s a great representation of what the comet looks like to the naked eye. Dave Gallant

I last saw the comet on July 8 before it was overtaken by clouds. Its visible tail had doubled in length (to 6°) from the previous morning, and it was a little brighter to the naked eye, too. Telescope and binoculars gave the best views. Because the sun is rising a little later and the moon is waning, dawn views of the comet and its long tail should improve a little in the coming days even as NEOWISE commences to fade.

I did a careful check and it will be possible to see NEOWISE at dawn through July 18. At the same time, you can watch for it in the evening twilight starting about July 12 when it will appear in the constellation Lynx the lynx which neighbors Ursa Major. From July 12-18 you can see it at both dawn and dusk.

Use this updated map to help you track down Comet NEOWISE in the early dawn sky. For mid-northern latitudes this is the scene around 3:30-4 a.m. local time. Note that Venus passes close to Taurus’s brightest star Aldebaran on July 11-12. See below for the evening map. Stellarium with additions by the author

Once it pushes into the evening hours it will climb the northwestern sky and be more convenient to view, but it will be fading, too. I always recommend seeing transient phenomena like comets when they’re brightest and at the earliest opportunity if for other reason than the weather. You never know when you’ll be slammed by storms and like and for how long.

This comet is simply amazing in a telescope. I made this sketch using Photoshop from observations through a 10-inch telescope on July 7. The dark channel and comet’s aerodynamic shape really stand out. The bright nucleus region appears yellow while the tail glows a delicate orange  Bob King

NEOWISE is amazingly colorful, an aspect I tried to capture in the sketch and displays a wonderful, bifurcated (split in two) dust tail. Dust is released when comet ice vaporizes in the heat of the sun. Sunlight exerts pressure on the dust, blowing it back behind the icy comet to form a tail. We see tails because the particles are excellent at scattering sunlight just like dust or smoke does on Earth.

A faint, blue ion tail streams away from the main dust tail on July 7. The ion tail is composed of carbon monoxide gas that fluoresces blue when excited by ultraviolet light from the sun. Michael Jäger

Recently, the comet developed a second tail called the gas or ion tail. It’s faint, pale blue and very narrow. Few have seen it yet, but it does show in deep exposure photographs like the one above. Sometimes bright comets develop a very faint sodium tail made from glowing sodium atoms. No one has seen that yet assuming there is one.

Close up of the comet’s head and split tail on July 8. Ali Ebrahimi Seraji
The Big Dipper and stars of Ursa Major the great bear will help you keep track of Comet NEOWISE when it shows up in the evening sky. This map depicts the sky around 10-10:30 p.m. local time with positions marked every 3 nights. Stellarium with additions by the author

I’ve included a new map for you so you can see where the comet is headed as it moves into the evening sky. If you do spot this beauty please send me a report in the comments area or friend me on Facebook and comment there. Clear skies!

13 Responses

  1. Richard K. Mitchell

    This comet wasn’t an obvious naked eye object a few days ago, but wow it is now! The comet rose over the Sandia Crest around 4:44 am. I didn’t need to locate it with binoculars, in fact I could see the tail projecting from behind the mountains before the head even rose…with the naked eye. The comet’s color and structure visible in 10x50s. By throwing the binoculars out of focus, I compared the comet to beta(Auriga) and it seemed to be a bit brighter. Anyway, getting up early is not an option for me because we have a Monsoon season here in the Southwest U.S. but it is usually clear here in the morning.

  2. Stephan Bradley

    How do you get the little comet looking graphic – is that an option in Stellarium or do you add that post? I have Stellarium, but still pretty new with it.

  3. Edward M Boll

    10 days of clouds. I wanted to see it among the first. If it ever clears up, I might be the last.

  4. michael strizziere

    Crying shame .Philadelphia Under the weather I will have A window TUES. WED. THURS. partly cloudy…Maybe Sunday. Cannot wait till eve. Than you for all your information makes my life easy.

  5. Rick Morgan

    I spotted the comet at 4:55 am through hazy skies in my 8X40’s. By 5:02 am it was naked-eye, having risen a bit out of the haze. It appeared to be mag.2, slightly brighter than Theta Aurigae, with a tail 2 degrees long. I followed it until 5:35 am EDT which is only 37 minutes before sunrise here in High Point, NC. My bincos showed a definite bluish tint to its tail, but there was also an orange component. Can’t wait to see how NEOWISE develops further.

    1. Hi Rick,
      Thanks for your report! I was out also out this morning and photographed the comet’s developing blue (ion) tail. You may have seen a hint of that.

  6. Rick Ball

    Thanks for your inspiration Bob! My friend Dan and I went to the Hawk Ridge overlook on Skyline Parkway in Duluth at about 3:30am, and there she was! Beautiful! We were almost too late, as dawn began to break shortly after we arrived, and by 4:15am it was very hard to see. Spectacular, and well worth the price of admission! As a bonus, with binoculars we could see the phase of Venus, and 3 of Jupiter’s moons, and of course Mars was high in the sky as well. Thanks for the encouragement – it’s not easy to get out at that hour, but this was well worth the effort! Memorable!

  7. Dan Zei

    Found your link through Lake Superior Magazine’s weekly “Around the Lake”. Am located in the Bayfield County Peninsula and due to the date, looking to evening viewing. Wanting to share this with my 13 year old grandson. Any suggestions for optimal opportunities? Thanks and Blessings

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