Comet NEOWISE, the best comet of 2020

Sky chart with Big Dipper, Arcturus, and 4 locations of the comet.
View larger. | Location of Comet NEOWISE from July 27 to August 2, 2020. Facing west-northwest shortly after dusk, as seen from the U.S. See how the curve in the Big Dipper’s handle points to the bright star Arcturus? For a specific view – shortly after your local dusk – from your specific location on the globe, try Stellarium. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.

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Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) isn’t what astronomers call a great comet. But it’s a wonderful binocular comet that began gracing our early morning skies in early July. Now it’s visible in the evening, as soon as the sky gets really dark. We’ve been hearing from people throughout the Northern Hemisphere who’ve seen this comet, and we’ve heard from a few who have spotted it from Southern Hemisphere locations.

Comet NEOWISE was closest to Earth on July 23, passing some 64 million miles (103 million km) from our planet. Many observers have reported that – once you spot it with binoculars – you can remove them and glimpse this comet as a fuzzy object, using only the unaided eye.

Using binoculars or other optical aid is a must, though, if you want to see Comet NEOWISE’s splendid split tail. If you don’t have binocs, but do have a good camera, a great alternative is to capture a few-seconds-long exposure image of the approximate area of the sky. Try at different magnification or zoom settings, and the results should reveal the comet’s tail.

Check the bottom of this post for a few photos, but – for many more glorious shots of the comet from people throughout the Northern Hemisphere – visit EarthSky Community Photos. Thank you to all who have submitted photos!

Star chart with comet location marked and two galaxies labeled.
Photo opportunity! Early on the night of Friday, July 31, Comet NEOWISE will be passing close to where we see a pair of galaxies, as seen from our perspective. The celestial visitor is passing that night close by “Koi Fish” Galaxy (NGC 4559) and by the huge Needle Galaxy (NGC 4565). Observers using a computerized or Go To telescope can point their instruments to one of these galaxies to capture the encounter. Illustration by Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium.
A composite of 3 images of the comet, one as it would look through a telescope and 2 in false color.
View these images on Facebook. | Alessandro Marchini of the Osservatorio Astronomico Università di Siena posted these images on July 26, 2020. He wrote: “Comet NEOWISE anatomy. Image of the C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) that we made last night with our telescope, with false-color processing. The first (left) highlights gas jets coming out of the core to flow into the tail. The second (right) shows, as the artificial color changes, the different density of the material (gas and dust) that surrounds the core and forms the ‘hair’ and tail of this amazing comet.” Thank you, Alessandro!
2-paneled composite showing Comet NEOWISE as a green fuzzy head with lighter-colored tail.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | A Southern Hemisphere view of Comet NEOWISE. Comet NEOWISE has been visible in Northern Hemisphere skies for some weeks. Now, we’re beginning to hear from a few people who are seeing the comet in Southern Hemisphere skies. Stephen James O’Meara captured this image on July 24, 2020, from Maun, Botswana, in southern Africa. He wrote: “These views show the comet under crescent moonlight with both its ion (blue) and dust (yellow) tails (image at left). The image at right shows the comet’s green head and dust appearing exceedingly red owing to wind-blown dust in Earth’s atmosphere.” Thanks for sharing, Steve!
A comet in the sky, with red-lighted building on a hilltop in the foreground, and a nighttime glow of city lights in the background.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Comet NEOWISE over southern California. Alejandro Figarella caught this image of Comet NEOWISE on the evening of July 19, along the Templin Highway, Los Angeles, California. Thank you, Alejandro! Have you seen the comet from a latitude of 30 degrees N., or farther south? If so, drop us a note, or submit your photo to EarthSky Community Photos.
Comet and aurora against a starry medium blue sky, over a body of water.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | This wonderful binocular comet graced our early morning skies in early July. Now Comet NEOWISE is visible in the evening for the Northern Hemisphere. It’s best seen with optical aid. James Younger captured this image of NEOWISE and an aurora (the green glow on the right in this photo) on July 14, in the evening, from Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Thank you, James!
Comet in the sky above a lake, also reflecting in the lake.
This image is from Bob King – aka AstroBob – in Duluth, Minnesota. He wrote: “My first view of Comet NEOWISE at dusk instead of dawn from a lake near Duluth on July 11. Comets and water naturally go together as they’re thought responsible in part for delivering water to the early Earth.” Thank you, Bob!
Twilight horizon over city with small streak and white dashed line against deep blue sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project captured Comet NEOWISE on July 7, 2020, along with the International Space Station (dashed line), in this dawn view of Rome, Italy. “What a sight!” he wrote.
A comet with a split tail set against a bright twilight sky over blue hills.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Composite image of Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) captured by Marsha Kirschbaum in San Leandro, California, on the morning of July 5, 2020. She wrote: “It was a really early a.m. wakeup call for me. This icy celestial visitor survived its pass by the sun to put on a splendid show at 4:45 a.m. this morning. After a night and early morning of the dull background roar of fireworks punctuated by really loud ‘bombs’ with the smell of smoke, I was really doubtful I would see the comet because of the haze. And there was a lot of it as can be seen on the horizon in this image. I couldn’t quite see it with the unaided eye, but my 200 mm lens saw it just fine. My kind of celestial fireworks.” Thank you, Marsha!
A faint comet in the twilit dawn sky over New York City's glittering skyline.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Alexander Krivenyshev in Guttenberg, New Jersey – of the website – wrote: “Despite a layer of clouds on the horizon, I was able to capture my first comet over New York City on the early morning of July 6, 2020.” Cool shot, Alexander! Thank you.
A small faint comet in a twilight sky, with a desert landscape silhouetted in the foreground.
This image – taken on the morning of July 5, 2020, by Jeremy Perez at Sunset Crater in Arizona – shows comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) on the same scale that you might see it with the eye alone. Try to use binoculars to reveal all the beauty of this comet. Used with permission. Thank you, Jeremy!
Comet in twilight over desert landscape with evergreen tree in foreground.
Another July 5 shot of comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) by Jeremy Perez in Arizona. This one is more of a close-up. “It was an easy naked-eye object,” wrote this experienced sky observer, who was looking in a desert sky, “but really rewarding through binoculars.” Used with permission. Thanks again, Jeremy!

Comet NEOWISE has even been seen from the International Space Station!

Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner says the comet’s tail is clearly visible from the space laboratory’s cupola. Look at this amazing image:

Small glowing dot with barely visible tail over brilliant blue, wavy, horizontal streaks of clouds.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) and noctilucent clouds captured from the International Space Station. Image via Roscosmos.

Alessandro Marchini of the Osservatorio Astronomico Università di Siena posted these photos to Facebook:

Here is another great image by Philipp Salzgeber from Austria:

Niccole Neely posted this photo and said, “Here is another shot of #CometNeowise…this time a bit closer! Look at that beautiful tail! Taken in Arizona this morning!”

When was NEOWISE first discovered? Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered on March 27, 2020 – not from Earth’s surface – but from by a space observatory some 326 miles (525 km) above Earth’s surface. It’s named for its discoverer, the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, aka NEOWISE, which was launched by NASA in 2009.

Comet NEOWISE was closest to the sun on July 3, 2020, passing at about 26.7 million miles (43 million km) from the sun, or a bit closer than the average distance from the sun to Mercury. Unlike some comets, it survived the close encounter with our star and went on to become widely seen by binocular observers and astrophotographers.

How big is Comet NEOWISE? Joseph Masiero, NEOWISE deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, commented recently:

From its infrared signature, we can tell (its nucleus) is about 3 miles (5 km) across … and is covered with sooty, dark particles left over from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

In other words … a typical comet!

How bright is Comet NEOWISE? In early July, reports began indicating that Comet NEOWISE has a visual magnitude between 1 and 2. If you know the magnitude scale, where smaller numbers indicate brighter objects, that may sound very bright! However, stars are pinpoints of light, whereas the light of comets is diffuse (spread out). So, for comets, a magnitude of 1 or 2 is fainter than it would be for a star of equal magnitude. The reason is, the comet’s light is distributed over a relatively wide area, instead being concentrated in a single point.

Is Comet NEOWISE a great comet? There’s no strict definition for great comet, but most agree that Hale-Bopp – widely seen by people in 1997 – was one. NEOWISE is nowhere near as bright as Hale-Bopp was. Unlike Hale-Bopp, NEOWISE will never be easily visible to the eye. So it’s not a great comet. But it’s a beautiful binocular comet, absolutely the best comet we’ve had for casual observers in some time.

Don’t miss it.

And, by the way, forget about making plans to view this comet’s next apparition in Earth’s skies. Comet NEOWISE might be visible again from Earth, but not until around the year 8,786!


Long exposure images show even more details:



For a specific view (chart) – on a specific date – from your exact location on the globe, try Stellarium-Web.

Bottom line: Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was closest to Earth on July 23. It’s still magnificent now in the evening – through binoculars – for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. A few Southern Hemisphere observers are beginning to capture it, too. Charts and more info here.

July 27, 2020

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