While taking photos of the comet last night a faint aurora perked up low in the northern sky around 11:30 and continued past midnight. It was’t much to see visually, just a faint arc with hints of texture, but the camera revealed rays and color. At times I think it would be nice if the comet were high in a dark sky — the better to see its pair of long, faint tails. But the fact that it hunkers near the horizon provides photographers lots of opportunities for scenic images that include a favorite landscape, clouds or even the occasional aurora.
NEOWISE glows around magnitude 3.5 and looks wispy in late twilight, but it’s still a compelling naked-eye sight from a dark, rural sky. The comet’s head looks like a faint, fuzzy star, and I was able to see 8° of tail without optical aid. In 10×50 binoculars and photographs the tail extended right up to the bottom of the Big Dipper’s bowl, a distance of 13°. NEOWISE continues moving east and south in the nights ahead, which means the view will continue to improve for observers in southern U.S.
As the moon waxes the comet will become more difficult to see with the naked eye but you should have no problem spotting it through binoculars right up through full moon. While the tail will fade and mostly disappear in bright moonlight the head of the comet will persist. The moon will get out of the way again about August 5-6 by which time NEOWISE is expected to fade to magnitude 6, the naked-eye limit from a dark sky.
NEOWISE was discovered on March 27 this year, its first recorded sighting in history. Lots of new comets are found every year. Most are faint and require a telescope. Alongside new discoveries there are the returning or “periodic” comets. The brightest remaining periodic comet of the year is 88P/Howell which will reach magnitude 8.5 during the fall but lie low in the southwestern sky for U.S. and European skywatchers. Howell was discovered in August 1981 and orbits the sun every 5.5 years compared to ~6,800 years for NEOWISE.