Backyard Observatory

The Brightest Comet in Almost a Decade Is Visible Now. Here’s How to See It.

Comet NEOWISE is ready to put on a show. Whatever you do, don't miss it.

For not the first time in 2020, space enthusiasts are getting excited about a comet. Only this time, the comet is not breaking hearts by fading before it can be seen with the naked eye. 

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE -- or, simply, Comet NEOWISE -- made its closest approach to the sun on July 3. That's a fragile time for any comet and our ability to see it. A comet's visibility from Earth is influenced both by its proximity to Earth and its proximity to the sun, as the sun's immense energy heats the comet and makes it brighter. This increased heat can force the icy comet to break apart as was seen earlier this year with Comet ATLAS.

However, as Comet NEOWISE began making its long trek out of our solar system, it became visible to the naked eye, surviving the intense pass by Mercury and our local star. As NASA notes, however, the comet's nearness to the sun causes challenges to viewers.

Is Comet NEOWISE visible?

If you step out to see the comet, with no visual aid and dark skies, you should be able to see the comet's core, per NASA. If you break out binoculars, you will get a view of the comet and its long tail of gas and dust. Sky & Telescope estimates its current brightness to be magnitude 1.4, making it the brightest comet since PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) in March 2013. Many observers have said that it's easiest to find it first with binoculars and then remove them to get a good naked-eye view of the comet. 

This is a wonderful sight, but it's not quite a "great comet." If you want to get a glimpse of NEOWISE's beautiful split tail, you'll need to use binoculars. Without the use of binoculars or a telescope, you'll see a "fuzzy star with a bit of a tail," NASA explains.

It's also bright enough that you can photograph Comet NEOWISE with little difficulty. (There are tons of outstanding photos of the comet to be found on social media.)

VISHNU REDDY

How to see Comet NEOWISE

After July 11, the comet will no longer be visible in the morning sky for most viewers in the US. Sometime between July 12-15, it will emerge in the early evening sky, according to an estimate from EarthSky. Later in July, it may be even easier to see as it continues to climb higher in the sky. It could remain visible to some extent into August, assuming, of course, that the comet doesn't fade or break apart. Comets are volatile, so it's advisable to get out soon and maybe get a repeat viewing as it gets higher.

When it appears in the evening, EarthSky says it'll most easily be viewed at northern latitudes like Canada and the mid- and northern US. It'll slowly become more easily visible in southern latitudes as the month wears on.

To find the comet, get out of the city and away from bright lights. Then look to the northwest just after sunset. It'll be almost directly below the Big Dipper and be sure you have an unobstructed view of the northwest horizon. (See the graphic below.) It'll start just to the right and underneath that easily identifiable constellation, near the horizon, on July 15. Then it will gradually move to the left and up until it's just to the left of the Big Dipper, almost under Arcturus (the brightest star in the sky right now), on July 23. That night it'll be just a bit to the right of a low-hanging crescent moon. 

One further note on getting away from city lights. It's always going to make stargazing more enjoyable when you're out of the city because the objects in the sky are going to appear brighter. That's no different for Comet NEOWISE. However, I've been able to see the comet without a viewing aid from inside Minneapolis. It was definitely looking better through binoculars, but it was visible to the naked eye. So, as long as it doesn't start to dim, it's possible to see it from inside a city, but it's really going to help if you're able to use binoculars. 

how to see Comet Neowise
NASA/JPL-Caltech

When to see Comet NEOWISE

To recap, here's when to look for the comet throughout the month: 

  • Through July 11, you can see NEOWISE an hour or two before sunrise to the northeast. It'll remain close to the horizon and at its highest point in the morning sky of July 11. 
  • Starting July 12, you'll find the comet in the northwest at sunset. It'll still be low in the sky, but it'll rise a little every night throughout the month. 
  • On July 23, Comet NEOWISE will make its closest approach to Earth during its trip out of the solar system. If nothing interferes with its visibility, this could be a great time to see the comet. Later in the month, if the comet is still visible, you may see it alongside meteors from the Delta Aquarid meteor shower.
Comet Neowise brightness
Comet NEOWISE appears as a string of fuzzy red dots in this composite of several heat-sensitive infrared images taken by NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission on March 27, 2020. | NASA/JPL-Caltech

Who found Comet NEOWISE?

The big ball of ice was discovered on March 27, 2020 by NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE).  "In its discovery images, Comet NEOWISE appeared as a glowing, fuzzy dot moving across the sky even when it was still pretty far away," Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator at the University of Arizona, said in a statement. "As soon as we saw how close it would come to the Sun, we had hopes that it would put on a good show."

It's not going to become so bright that it's glowing in the daytime sky or even well-defined during its limited viewing window at night. But it can be seen, and it's not all too often you're going to get a chance to see a comet with the naked eye. And this is your only chance to see Comet NEOWISE, unless you plan on living for another 6,800 years. 

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.