Bright comet moves into the evening sky

The brightest comet for many years is now showing best in the evening sky after dazzling amateur astronomers in the morning sky before dawn.

Comet NEOWISE sporting its two tails, of gas and dust, in the early hours of 20 July. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

Comet NEOWISE is currently heading towards and below the familiar asterism known as the Big Dipper, or Plough. It earlier survived a close flight past the Sun, and emerged into the dawn twilight. It is best seen from the northern hemisphere.

It is shining at a comparable brightness to the brighter stars, and it is sporting a lovely twin tail which has shown itself in photos, despite bright twilight at far northern latitudes. Estimates put its brightness at best at around +1 magnitude, though it is now gradually fading. Look for it in the north-northwest as soon as the sky darkens.

Comet NEOWISE photographed over the sea at Walmer, UK, on the morning of 11 July, 2020. Image credit Paul Sutherland

Photos on this page, by Skymania’s Paul Sutherland, show the comet’s magnificent appearance following its rendezvous with the Sun. He used a conventional camera with either a telephoto lens or a small refracting telescope playing a similar role.

Another image of Comet NEOWISE, produced by combining 23 photos taken on July 7 through a 66mm refracting telescope. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

But the comet was even photographed, from Puimichel, in the Alpes de Hautes Provence region of France, on the morning of July 5, by Dany Cardoen, using a Samsung Galaxy S10 mobile phone! Dany told Skymania: “I saw the comet’s tail rise above the horizon followed by the core. Its magnitude, I think, was about -1 in my binoculars.”

This image of Comet NEOWISE was taken on the morning of July 6 from Walmer, UK, using a Fujifilm X-T10 camera with 230mm lens. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

The presence of all-night twilight near mid-summer at northern latitudes means the comet is not as obvious to spot as it would be in a really dark sky. It is also still quite low in the sky before sunrise, so you will need a horizon unobstructed by hills, buildings or trees.

However, the comet – whose full name is C/2020 F3 NEOWISE – will gradually become better placed over the coming days as it moves away from the Sun. Its extreme orbit, which brought it in from the depths of the Solar System to round the Sun, is now carrying it back out into deep space.

The track of Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) during July 2020. The track markers are for 0h UT each day, and in the format Month-Day. Click on chart to view full-size. Image credit Skymania using Cartes du Ciel software.

But as it recedes from the Sun, Comet NEOWISE is actually getting closer to the Earth. It will be at its nearest to us on July 23, at a distance of 103 million km. So astronomers are hopeful that it will continue to be a nice bright sight for a while yet.

Related: Comets – visitors from deep space

The comet’s track is currently carrying it between the constellations of Auriga and Gemini, so in early July you will have to look to the north-east, a little way beneath the bright star Capella, to find it.

Several images of Comet NEOWISE through a 66mm refracting telescope, on the morning of 11 July, from Walmer, UK, have been stacked here to bring out detail. Image credit Paul Sutherland

Binoculars will be very helpful in finding it, even if the comet is just visible in the brightening twilight.

During the rest of July, Comet NEOWISE will head through Lynx and into Ursa Major, passing beneath the familiar asterism of seven bright stars known as the Big Dipper, or the Plough. This will keep it low in the sky before dawn, but it will increasingly be visible earlier in the night, in a darker sky.

A photo of Comet NEOWISE taken on the morning of July 5, from Puimichel, southern France, with a Samsung Galaxy S10 mobile phone! Image credit: Dany Cardoen

By the third week of July, the comet will be on view all night long and stargazers will be able to view it before going to bed, rather than having to get out of their warm beds before dawn!

The Moon will be New on July 20, which means there will be no moonlight to spoil the view. Amateur astronomers are hoping the comet will still then be bright enough to see with the unaided eye. Binoculars will make observing it much easier.

The UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy also has a useful guide to observing and photographing comets.

Related: What you can see in this month’s night sky


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