Comet NEOWISE has captivated skywatchers with its stunning tail. Now that it’s moved into the evening sky and climbing higher each night even more people will get a chance to see it.

Comet NEOWISE above Mont-Saint_Michel
French amateur Thierry Legault took this exquisite photo of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) over the famous island abbey Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy at dusk on July 12th. Details: Sony a7r iii, 135-mm f/1.8 lens, sixteen 1.6-second exposures stacked. 
Thierry Legault

"Spectacular." "Amazing." "Beautiful." "Awesome." Those are just a few of the words first-time observers have used to describe Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3). I agree 1,000 percent — this is one incredible comet!

NEOWISE transitions from the dawn to the dusk sky this week. For a time you'll still be able to view it at both ends of the clock, but by July 18th it rapidly approaches the northern horizon and disappears from view. For the northern U.S., Canada, and much of Europe the comet is circumpolar and visible all night long this week. It reaches maximum northern declination (+48°) on July 20th when it never dips below the horizon for locations north of latitude 42°N.

Comet NEOWISE above Lake Superior
Comet NEOWISE blends into a northern lights display over Lake Superior seen from Marquette County, Michigan, early on July 13th. Details: ISO 3200, 15-seconds, f/2.
Shawn Malone

Comet NEOWISE has generated tremendous interest and rightly so. It's the first easily visible naked-eye comet to grace northern skies since PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) in 2013 and before that, McNaught (C/2006 P1) in 2006-07. While PanSTARRS reached 1st magnitude it possessed a much shorter naked-eye tail, while McNaught was primarily a Southern Hemisphere object. You have to reach all the way back to 1997 to Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1) to find a comparable comet.

Comet NEOWISE above Rice Lake, Minnesota
Comet NEOWISE, sporting both ion (top) and dust tails, arches over a home illuminated by outdoor lighting in Rice Lake, Minnesota, at 11 p.m. on July 12th.
Bob King

It's all about the tail when it comes to public appreciation of comets. The longer and brighter the better. Although NEOWISE has faded from magnitude +0.5 to about magnitude 2 since early July, its tail has been growing continuously, from a short stub at perihelion to more than 15° long two weeks later. A combination of factors are responsible for the apparent lengthening of the tail, including waning moonlight, the comet's current visibility in a dark sky, and its increasing altitude and proximity to Earth. Closest approach occurs on July 23rd at a distance of 103 million kilometers.

Comet NEOWISE in Minnesota
At nightfall on July 14th I could trace the comet's dust tail for 10° with the naked eye from a dark-sky site. At its far end it broadens to approximately 3°. A faint, broad fan of material is visible halfway up the dust tail to the right. The blue dust tail is faintly visible in 50-mm binoculars. The red band is airglow.
Bob King

Most observers, including those new to comet-watching, can trace the tail to 4° to 5° visually and about double that in a pair of 50-mm binoculars. With the naked eye it looks like a feather plume or crooked finger pointing to the horizon. My friend Burt said it reminded him of a light beam. Others liken it to E.T.'s finger, complete with glowing fingertip, from the movie E.T. the Extraterrestrial. When I saw it on July 14th from a dark, moonless site my jaw dropped. The comet dominated the northern sky with its 10°-long fanned tail and bright coma. Whether viewed from the country or city observers agree on one thing: NEOWISE is absolutely stunning in binoculars.

Comet NEOWISE and its kinked tails
Michael Jäger recorded incredible detail in both tails on July 12th from a mountain location. The kinked ion tail measures at least 16° long.
Michael Jäger

While the telescopic view reveals additional structures in the coma and intensifies the comet's colors, only binoculars comfortably reveal the full breadth of the tail. The dust tail extends (currently) even beyond the typical 5.5°–6.5° binocular field of view, while the fainter ion tail unfurls to more than 15°.

This time-lapse of Comet NEOWISE was photographed near Anza, California, shortly before sunrise on July 12th.
Dave Kodama

Due to the comet's low altitude the ion or gas tail is difficult to see visually but it's faintly visible alongside the dust tail in binoculars and telescope. It's composed primarily of carbon monoxide gas vaporized from cometary ice. Struck by ultraviolet light from the Sun it glows a vivid aqua. The ion tail interacts with the solar wind to create the delightful knots and kinks seen in Michael Jäger's deep photograph.

Both tails originate from sublimating ice on the 5-kilometer-wide comet body which is hidden from view inside the false nucleus, where the escaping dust is most concentrated. On July 14th through my 10-inch telescope it was a tiny, bright "light bulb" at the head of the comet's tail which looked for all the world like streamlined fog. Telescopic observers are encouraged to study the nucleus closely for jets — geyser-like blasts of dust escaping from the comet itself — as well as possible fragmentation.

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A salty tail, too!

Comet NEOWISE sodium tails
False-color images of Comet NEOWISE recorded by the Planetary Science Institute's Input/Output facility on July 8th show (left) light reflected from dust — similar to the naked-eye view — and (right) light emitted by sodium atoms. The sodium tail is too faint to see visually in a telescope.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Carl Schmidt

Like Hale-Bopp, NEOWISE has a third tail comprised of sodium atoms. Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Jeffrey Morgenthaler observed the comet on July 8th using special filtering and detected a narrow, long tail of sodium atoms pointing directly away form the Sun. The sodium appears to originate from fragmenting dust in the inner coma.

"Atomic sodium responds to sunlight in a similar way to cometary dust, but its momentum kick comes from a very particular wavelength of yellow light – the same color seen in sodium-vapor streetlamps," Morgenthaler writes. 

Comet NEOWISE in a telephoto lens
Even a 200-mm telephoto lens reveals much detail in the comet including the blue ion tail and parallel rays or synchronic bands inside the dust tail. Details: 200-mm, f/2.8, ISO 800, and a 62-second exposure.
Bob King

Evening viewing tips

Comet NEOWISE from Duluth, Minnesota
When seeking NEOWISE at dusk look low in the northwestern sky for a fuzzy "star" with a short tail resembling a shuttlecock. This photo was taken at 10:30 p.m. on July 12th from Duluth, Minnesota.
Bob King

From many mid-northern latitude locations you can start looking as early as 9:45–10 p.m. low in the northwestern sky. Good fortune gave us Capella as a morning guide star. Now the Big Dipper steps in to assist (see map below). You'll need to find a place with a wide-open view to the northwest and removed from bright city lights in that direction. Scout a location during the daytime so you don't have to drive around looking for one at night.

Arrive there between 9:45 to 10 p.m. local time with a pair of binoculars. Any will do but I really like the 7×50s or 10×50s because they combine a large field of view and moderate magnification with good light-gathering ability. Before you look for the comet be sure to focus the binoculars on a bright star or planet first. That will make the fuzzy comet easier to spot.

Comet NEOWISE Chart
Comet NEOWISE positions are shown every 3 days for one hour after sunset July 15–23. The comet rapidly increases in altitude this week.
Stellarium with additions by the author

Use the map to help you point the binoculars in the right direction, then slowly "sweep" the area until you spot a little point of light with a short tail sticking out of it. If you start early you may not see the comet with the naked eye, but give it some time. When the sky gets darker the comet not only becomes a gorgeous sight in binoculars but also appears to the naked eye as a faint, fat streak of light.

Corrected for atmospheric extinction — the dimming of objects near the horizon where the atmosphere is thickest — NEOWISE shines around magnitude 1.5–2 at the moment (July 15th). And although the comet will fade in the coming weeks (it's expected to drop to 3rd magnitude by July 18th and to 4 by the 25th) it's also climbing higher and higher in the evening sky, which will partially offset its dimming. Try to catch it every clear night you can because you never know when clouds could roll in.

Comet NEOWISE light curve
The comet's light curve through July 14th shows a peak in brightness around its July 3rd perihelion followed by a slow fading.
Comet Observation Database

Where to Next?

The comet strides past a number of galaxies as it travels southward from Ursa Major into Coma Berenices in the next few weeks. Highlights include a close pairing with the Black Eye Galaxy (M64) on August 3rd followed by an attractive grouping with the globular clusters M53 and NGC 5053 on August 6th. NEOWISE will shine around magnitude 6 at the time, the naked-eye limit. The Moon returns to brighten the scene starting July 23rd.

Observers in the far southern U.S. will have to wait just a bit longer to see NEOWISE — it will pop over the northwestern horizon starting July 16th and only get better from there. Southern Hemisphere skywatchers, who are undoubtedly chomping at the bit, will get finally get their NEOWISE fix around July 28–30.

Comet NEOWISE in Minnesota
My older daughter and I share the comet on a beautiful but mosquito-rich dawn on July 11th.
Bob King

Due to COVID-19 concerns it's difficult or impossible to share the comet in a group setting. But we can share it with our families and even a small groups of friends with proper social distancing. Kids love adventures and staying up late. What better way to create a special memory, and you might just inspire your child to make a lifelong connection to the stars.

I wish you many happy nights with this vagabond from the Oort Cloud. Like my friend Patricia said: "What's a little less sleep when you have a comet visiting Earth?"

Comments


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Brian

July 16, 2020 at 12:44 am

I took a crack at finding this one tonight (7-15-20) and was successful! It wasn't until it got dark enough to find Dubhe & Merak in the big dipper (which are above the comet), that I was able to find it - right before 9 pm. I was able to spot it with binoculars first, the with eyes once I knew where to look. I think I was able to see more tail with my eyes & averted vision than through the binoculars; or maybe it was just my imagination!
I live in the suburbs of Los Angeles - if I can see it, anyone can!

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Bob King

July 17, 2020 at 12:14 pm

Thanks, Brian for that heartening report. City dwellers take note!

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Tom Hoffelder

July 16, 2020 at 8:27 pm

Hello Bob, wow, what a show last night here in Maine! My wife and I first saw the comet on Sunday evening, the 12th; it was quite low then of course but interesting. Last night we were shocked by a view we never expected!. I have posted in the S&T gallery here a photo from last night; it is indicative of our actual view.

NEOWISE is the 151st comet I have observed, but before this one, only 6 were what I call real comets: Mrkos, Kohoutek, West, Halley (March 86 in FL, not closest approach), Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. Since it has been 23 years since H-B, I was beginning to think I might not have seen another. But now all is well!

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Bob King

July 17, 2020 at 12:13 pm

Hi Tom,
Definitely the best n. hemisphere comet since Hale-Bopp. Hands down.And it keeps on hanging in there, too although last night I could tell it was beginning to fade.

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Tom Hoffelder

July 17, 2020 at 11:17 pm

I think my wife and I were lucky - Maine weather may be the worst for astronomy - to see what may have been the best evening view. Perhaps you could, or did, check my photo? https://skyandtelescope.org/online-gallery/comet-neowise-in-maine/

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Steven Yaskell

July 17, 2020 at 6:08 pm

It is really a winner. My neighbor photographed it (professionally) from about 1,700 feet elevation in Mount Holly, Vermont 15 July, when it was still 1st mag (43 N lat). It really blossomed. I communicated this probable growth of the comet to my neighbor (who sees it better than me), he took a look, then, pleased w/ the results, had me over, so I could take my crumby shots. It's always good to have something like this connect people. Last such a time was when I showed school kids in Sweden Hale Bopp through various binoculars and an observatory telescope in their school as the "knowledgeable amateur astronomer" in nearby residence! Thank you, Nature!

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Howard Ritter

July 18, 2020 at 9:05 am

Having photographed the comet myself, and knowing that it never appears in a dark sky, I'm gobsmacked that your photo @ f2.8, 62 sec, ISO 800, wasn't totally swamped by twilight. I wasn't able to expose for more than about 5 s @ f/5.6 and ISO 2000 without the (fairly deep) twilight submerging the tail, and even then, I had to push the image to the limit in Photoshop to get a background sky that was not even as dark as yours. And I can't get the ion tail or synchronic bands at all. Your cumulative exposure, allowing for all parameters, was about 10 times mine. Any tips, observations, processing secrets?

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Bob King

July 19, 2020 at 9:45 am

Hi Howard,
Possibly the only thing I had going for me which you didn't was that the sky was extremely dark. There was no twilight, and I photographed it from a rural location with no light pollution. I processed the image in Photoshop, carefully stretching the contrast and using other tools to better emphasize tail details. The original is more subtle. I'm not sure what your latitude is, but I'm at 47°N. NEOWISE moved into the evening sky more quickly than from lower latitudes.

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richard szweda

July 18, 2020 at 11:34 am

Was able to spot comet last night (July 17) about 10 ET. Not spectacular, but visible from Fairport, NY thru some haze and directly through the glow of light pollution generated directly over Rochester about 10 miles away. Binoculars helped, but dimly visible with naked eye. Using the Dipper as a guide helped. Worth a try in urban areas

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Bob King

July 19, 2020 at 9:45 am

Thank you, Richard for reporting your view.

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ShaunL

July 18, 2020 at 11:31 pm

Watched from North of Nashville starting about 9:05 PM and still visible 10:20 PM central time. Using naked eye could see 1 degrees of trail at about 9:30 14 by 50mm binoculars amazing show with trail extending 3 to 4 degrees back and very clear despite exceptionally high humidity making background stars twinkle. Focused on bottom star of supper and went straight down into triangle with Iota. A first for me and my girls! Pretty exciting.

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ShaunL

July 18, 2020 at 11:33 pm

*Dipper Not supper. LOL

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New Jersey Eclipse Fan

July 19, 2020 at 3:10 pm

WE knew what you meant! It's "dinner" now, but growing up we called our evening meal "supper." Maybe dipper (sunner?) is the perfect combination. Anyway...it's always great to see "Nashville," especially on these pages! Three summers ago, my wife and I spent four days there during eclipse week. We have only fantastic memories of our first and only (so far) trip there. The highlight, of course, came on Monday, August 21, 2017. We carefully selected our viewing location, which was Volunteer State Community College in nearby Gallatin. The people there were SO nice and we still have our free eclipse glasses and "Vol State Pioneers" fans that they handed out. I sent the college president--who we met--a personal letter of thanks for their hospitality. It didn't hurt that we were blessed with perfect conditions for my second total solar eclipse.

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Alan

July 20, 2020 at 9:00 am

Reading the Australian NEWS it states: Due to the position of the comet and the tilt of the Earth, anyone in the southern hemisphere won’t be able to see Comet Neowise as it shoots through space.
Is this correct? Because skyandtelescope advise that we, in the Southern Hemisphere, should start to see it on the 28-30 July.

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Bob King

July 20, 2020 at 10:01 am

Hi Alan,
That is incorrect. You may be missing the brightest part of its appearance, but the comet will enter your evening sky around July 27th when it still might shine around 4th magnitude. I created a basic map you can use. You'll find it at this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/47833278@N02/50133526006/in/dateposted-public/

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Anthony Barreiro

July 20, 2020 at 4:57 pm

Several friends here in the San Francisco Bay Area have asked me for advice about seeing the comet. These are folks in their 60's and 70's who are not experienced skywatchers. So far four people who found an open northwestern horizon have seen the comet in the evening and been wowed by it. This comet is an exception to the rule that the beauty of an astronomical event is inversely proportional to the volume of mainstream media hype.

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Bob-dBouncier

July 20, 2020 at 10:52 pm

Here in mid-New Hampshire, we finally have a cloudless night. With binoculars, we could see the comet around an hour after sunset (9:15pm EDT). After the sky darkened, it was easily visible with the naked eye. There's still a very long tail, which seemed to be blue-white, perhaps with some green at the edges. It should be up for a while more tonight, before it dips into the mountains.

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ggotta

July 21, 2020 at 1:41 am

It's not bullying the sky as Hale Bopp did, it's etheral, delicate, slender as a real comet should be. It does not show a large contrast against twilight and when the sky darkens it's dimmed by low elevation and light pollutions. If you're lucky and knows your surrounding you can even spot her naked eye from residual not-so-bright city locations - I did it from an overpass, nearby railway depot, the darkest part of my bulding garden in Alessandria, Italy last Saturday. Much better from the countryside Sunday 19 a gentle breeze helped to get rid of mosture, She shines at mag 3.3, has a decent 3 degree tail. Easy got some smartphone and tripod shots, one including International Space Station passing at 2042UT. Eager for next weekend, crescent Moon complments but does not blind yourself when looking at that sky section.

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Bob King

July 21, 2020 at 1:54 pm

Ggotta,

Lovely description.

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ThomasBallatore

July 21, 2020 at 2:03 am

I *finally* spotted NEOWISE here near Kyoto, Japan on July 19th after sunset. It's been a long rainy season this year but we finally got a break in the clouds. Light pollution and just the general summer haze/humidity meant I needed binoculars but it was a thrill to finally spot it. Enjoying all the spectacular shots from darker/clearer skies!

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Astrolutz

July 23, 2020 at 1:37 am

Tried July 22 about 9:30 pm (altitude about 25 degrees) from the Tampa FL suburbs and although there were no clouds at the moment, was barely able to see it with binoculars; only a vague and tiny tail visible even then. At this point of the light curve (Mag getting close to 5) it is little more than a telescopic object for urban observers. I hope that not too many first viewers will be discouraged from exploring the sky from disappointment after media hype. "Stunning" or "Dazzle" is probably more for Hale-Bopp or Ikeya-Seki (both of which I much enjoyed back in the XXth century); at present this one is more like "Where?"...

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Bob King

July 23, 2020 at 11:39 am

Astrolutz,
As with anything in the sky save the moon and bright planets location and timing are important. The comet has noticeably faded over the past week so I agree with you that at present it's not "spectacular" even here in Minnesota where NEOWISE is considerably higher in the sky compared to Tampa. But I think many observers would agree that the comet was simply stunning from dark skies a week to 10 days ago particularly in binoculars. We need to consider context, too. It's been 23 years since Hale-Bopp with many dim and barely naked-eye comets coming and going. NEOWISE knocks it out of the park compared to those. I hope you might still be able to find darker skies to see the comet before it fades too much. Last night it was still an easy naked-eye object (mag. ~3) from rural areas and lovely in 10x50 binoculars.

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Tom-Johnson

July 24, 2020 at 12:32 pm

I've got a binder with my observations of comets beginning with Ikeya-Seki in 1965 and now including Comet NEOWISE. It's interesting to look at my pencil drawings of Comets West, Halley, and Hale-Bopp, among the 26 comets I've observed so far. Most photographs of the great comets create an impression that disappoints many people when they see a real comet in the sky. Those more accustomed to sky watching know better what to expect, how to look for darker places to observe, and the persistence required (getting up at 3:30 AM to discover it's foggy again, etc.). When that clear dark morning or evening arrives, the persistence is rewarded. It's also gratifying when friends and family send an e-mail, sharing excitedly, "We saw it last night! It was beautiful!"

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Scott2112

July 24, 2020 at 4:44 pm

I agree with you wholeheartedly Bob. From my house 43 degree's N the comet and especially tail have faded noticeably in moderately light polluted skies. However, if it were any other comet I would still be very impressed by it on its own. Having said that I am increasingly glad I caught the early iteration as it fades from view. Hale-Bopp spoiled anyone who saw it, but realistically the performance of NEOWISE is still a relatively rare event and as you mentioned still worth a look!

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NS

July 23, 2020 at 2:59 am

I too finally spotted NEOWISE, from Hawaii (I'm about 15 miles west of Honolulu) at around 8:30 PM 07/22 local time. I'm late to the party; a fellow member of the Hawaiian Astronomical Society spotted it on the 16th. I needed 8X42 binoculars to see it, the sky where I'm at is pretty bright. Saw a fuzzy head with a wispy tail extending up and to the right.

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