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When and how to see Comet NEOWISE tonight and throughout July in the UK - plus observing tips




Look to the skies this month for a once-in-6,800-years opportunity.

Comet NEOWISE is exciting astronomers and astrophotographers as it blazes across the skies during July.

Processed data from the WISPR instrument on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows greater detail in the twin tails of comet NEOWISE, as seen on July 5, 2020. The lower, broader tail is the comet’s dust tail, while the thinner, upper tail is the comet’s ion tail.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg (38329929)
Processed data from the WISPR instrument on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows greater detail in the twin tails of comet NEOWISE, as seen on July 5, 2020. The lower, broader tail is the comet’s dust tail, while the thinner, upper tail is the comet’s ion tail.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg (38329929)

To date it’s been one for early risers - best seen about an hour before dawn by looking low to the horizon in a north-easterly direction.

But the good news for those not keen to rouse themselves as such an hour is that it’s now also visible in the evenings.

Once the skies are dark enough, it is visible to the naked eye, and looks spectacular in binoculars or a small telescope.

If you find it with binoculars, try taking the binoculars away, keeping your view in the same direction, to see it with the naked eye.

And the view could get better as the month goes on, as it rises higher above the horizon.

But a word of warning from NASA.

It says: ”Comets are notoriously unpredictable, so it's impossible to know if this one will remain so easy to spot, but if it does, it should become easier for more people to observe as July goes on.”

You can see more stunning photographs of it here, along with a guide to photographing it.

How and when to see it from the UK

  • Comet NEOWISE should be visible from about an hour after sunset by looking in a northerly direction.
  • It will travel from the north-west to north-east through the night.
  • If the skies are clear, it will be best seen at about 2.30am by looking north-east just above the horizon.
  • It can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night. Binoculars or a small telescope will make it easier to spot.
  • The best views - depending on the weather - could come on July 22-23, when it will make it’s closest pass to Earth - a mere 64 million miles (103 million km) away.

Tracking Comet NEOWISE through the month

NASA's guide to where to see the comet (38329906)
NASA's guide to where to see the comet (38329906)

Through the month: As the sun sets slightly earlier through the month, so NEOWISE could become visible a few minutes earlier, although darker skies will always yield more spectacular views. It is expected to be visible throughout the month now.

Sunday July 12: NEOWISE could become visible from about 10.15pm-10.30pm, but will become clearer as the night goes on.

Look for the bright star Capella in a northerly direction to help you locate it. Comet NEOWISE will appear to follow it across the sky, from north-west to north-east.

It is moving out of the constellation of Auriga now and towards Lynx.

You could also view it about 80 minutes before sunrise on Monday morning - it will be about ‘one fist up’ from the north-eastern horizon.

Tuesday July 14: Visible from about 10.15pm-10.30pm to the north-west, and becoming clearer as the night goes on, NEOWISE is now arriving in the constellation of Lynx, which is a line of stars that look a bit like a bird’s wings, flying towards you.

NASA's guide to where to see the comet in late July (38329910)
NASA's guide to where to see the comet in late July (38329910)

Sunday July 19: NEOWISE has now arrived in the constellation of Ursa Major, which includes the famous group of stars known as the Plough. The comet - visible from about 10.15pm - will be below the Plough. As the Plough ‘straightens’ out through the night, the comet will be below right as it heads to the north-east.

Thursday July 23: This could be the best night to see it - depending on the weather. It could be visible from about 10pm but again, will become clearer as the sky darkens. It remains in Ursa Major, but will begin heading out of the constellation after tonight.

Try https://stellarium-web.org to model where it will be a given point in time.

The comet’s discovery, size, shape and journey

Comet NEOWISE - formally known as Comet C/2020 F3 - was discovered on March 27, 2020 by a space observatory 326 miles (525 km) above Earth: the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also known as NEOWISE, hence the comet’s common name. The observatory was launched by NASA in 2009.

The comet is believed to be about three miles (5km) across and formed around the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. It has a split tail, which you may be able to detect through binoculars or a telescope.

NASA describes comets as cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the Sun. Some comets don’t survive if they get too close to the Sun, but this particular interplanetary iceberg emerged from its closest pass to our star on July 3, when it was about 26.7 million miles (43 million km) away from it.

Comet Neowise pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited above the Mediterranean Sea in between Tunisia and Italy. Picture: NASA (38329937)
Comet Neowise pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited above the Mediterranean Sea in between Tunisia and Italy. Picture: NASA (38329937)

Don’t forget to look for Saturn and Jupiter

While you’re out, look south-east for the beautiful sight of Saturn and Jupiter, appearing next to one another during July. Saturn is the lower of the two - to the left of Jupiter.

If you have a small telescope, you can see Saturn’s rings, and Jupiter’s moons may be visible with binoculars.

Photographs

Captured a great photo of it? We’d love to see it - share it with us at newsdesk@iliffemedia.co.uk.

Read more

Comet NEOWISE: Your stunning pictures and a masterclass in how to photograph it with Cambridge Astronomical Association

Stargazing with Cambridge Astronomical Association chairman Paul Fellows

Buying and using a telescope - advice from Paul Fellows, of Cambridge Astronomical Association

How to become a backyard astronomer



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