I made my first attempt for Comet NEOWISE Saturday morning, July 4. I probably should have turned around and gone back to bed, but there was just enough of an opening in the clouds to offer an iota of hope, so I stuck it out. Glad I did.
Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) rounded the sun on July 3rd at a distance of just 27.3 million miles (44 million km) … and survived! Now it’s a first magnitude object visible at dawn low in the northeastern sky below the bright star Capella in Auriga. That’s plenty bright normally to see with the naked eye, but the comet must compete with the dawn light, moonlight and very low altitude (where the air absorbs its light) for about a week until it’s better placed.
Few observers have seen it without optical aid but many have found it in binoculars when the sky is cloud-and-haze-free. My best view was in a telescope. The comet’s head glowed yellow, and I could make out a section of its fan-shaped tail. Without the clouds NEOWISE would have appeared much brighter. Chris Schur’s photograph captures the delicate beauty of the comet perfectly.
For the next few days, NEOWISE will probably be next to impossible to see with the naked eye, but 50mm or larger binoculars should reveal the bright head and part of the tail, too. To see the comet you’ll need to get up about 2 hours before sunrise (calculate here) and drive to a place with a view as close to the northeastern horizon as possible. NEOWISE only stands about 3°-5° high 1 hour and 45 minutes before sunrise, probably the best time to see it.
Here in Duluth, Minn. that’s around 3:30-4 a.m. I focused my binoculars on the star Capella and then just dropped down toward the horizon until I ran into the comet. Theta (θ) and Beta (β) Aurigae are also helpful stars. Between Capella and Theta you should have no problem star-hopping to NEOWISE as long as the sky isn’t covered in haze or thin clouds like mine was.
NEOWISE moves to the left or east over the coming week and also climbs a little higher with each dawn until about July 11. After that it transitions into the evening sky where we’ll finally see it true darkness. As long as the comet hews close to its brightness forecast it should become a beautiful object easily though faintly visible with the naked eye. It passes closest to the Earth on July 23rd at a very safe distance of 64 million miles (103 million km).
Go crazy and lose a little sleep. It’s the weekend after all. I arrived home at 4:30 a.m. to tweeting birds and a soft bed. AND I had seen a brand new comet!
(Heads up: Don’t forget that tonight (July 4) is the date of the penumbral lunar eclipse. Best time to see it is around 11:30 p.m. CDT (12:30 a.m. EDT, 10:30 p.m. MDT and 9:30 p.m. PDT).