Every once in a while we are treated to a fantastic occurrence on Earth, when a comet springs into view in our night sky. And right now, there’s a particularly awesome comet putting on a show – Comet Neowise.
Since early July the comet has been visible in the northern hemisphere about an hour after sunset and before sunrise. While best views of the comet are seen through binoculars or a telescope, it is now bright enough to be seen with the naked eye too.
As a result we’ve been seeing plenty of fascinating photos of the comet from around the world, with its bright head (or nucleus) and tail of dust and gas clearly visible streaming behind it. Many are calling this one of the greatest comets of the 21st Century, and it’s not done yet.
Comets become visible when they approach our Sun on their long orbits. As they get closer they are heated up, releasing some of their trapped ices and material into space, and forming long tails that can extend for millions of even billions of kilometers.
Comet Neowise, discovered in March 2020, takes several thousand years to orbit the Sun. It was discovered as it was making its way into the Solar System, making its closest approach to the Sun on July 3. It is now on its way out, and will make its closest approach to Earth on July 23 at a distance of 104 million kilometers.
As a result, the comet is likely to get brighter in our skies and more visible over the next few days. While it is now too low on the horizon to see in the morning for most, by July 19 it will be up to 20 degrees above the northwest Horizon about 80 minutes after sunset, prime time for viewing.
People often refer to extremely bright comets as “comets of the century”. The last one to be unequivocally classed as such was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, one of the brightest comets seen in our skies for decades.
Since then we’ve had a number of false dawns, as comets approached the Sun and looked like they might be quite bright before breaking apart. We have had a few bright visitors though, such as Comet McNaught in 2007.
While Comet Neowise probably isn’t bright enough to declare it a “Great Comet” just yet, it is still a sight to behold in the sky. So if you get a chance these next few days, make sure you head outside and see if you can grab a glimpse of our cosmic visitor.