A Bright New Comet is Visible from Ridgecrest

A Bright New Comet is Visible from RidgecrestRalph Paonessa, China Lake Astronomical Society

Original posting July 7, 2020

See original link at: http://www.chinalakeastro.org/ Blog/10/go-out-and-see-comet-neowise


Go out and look for bright comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). Look with the naked eye or binoculars, and try to see it’s beautiful tail.

There is a bright comet—one of the best in several years—that you should be able to see in July from our Ridgecrest skies—but you have to know when and where to look. Read this and then go search for it.

Comet NEOWISE—identified fully as C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)—is named after NASA’s Near Earth Orbit Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a satellite searching for comets and asteroids that venture close to Earth. It was discovered March 27, 2020, on its way toward a pass around the Sun, then back into the outer Solar System. It won’t return for another 6,800 years—so look for it soon! With any luck, you’ll see it and a nice tail (about half a degree, or the width of the Full Moon, when I photographed it July 6.

The challenge is that the comet is still close to the sun, so today from Ridgecrest it is only visible at the Eastern horizon just before sunrise, as it rises ahead of the sun. This comet is fairly bright, but it can be hard to find in the slowly brightening dawn sky, or in the murky skies so close to the horizon.

Shortly, its orbit will position it lower than the sun at sunrise—but this will place it above the Sun in the West at sunset, so you’ll have more chances to see it.

Binoculars will help—as well as keen eyes. I only found it in binoculars when I went out to look at 3:30 AM the morning of July 6 (whereas sharp-eyed Brian easily spotted it naked eye July 8). Some days will no doubt be better than others, depending on whether there is haze or clouds near the horizon, or due to the slight movement each day of the comet toward or away from the Sun.

When the sky is darkest (best for comet viewing), the comet is closest to the horizon (bad). As the comet rises higher (good), the sky turns brighter (bad again). This frustrating pattern plays out again at sunset (in reverse). My best advice is to spend a lot of time searching, and on several days if you can—it might not be easy—or it might just jump out at you! One thing for sure, it is beautiful, as well as rare.

More Details on When and Where to Look

Search in the direction of where the sun rises (or sets). Enlarge the charts below for reference. Here are the approximate directions to NEOWISE:

Before sunrise (4:30 AM) — 45° (NE) — to the left of bright Venus, and below bright star Capella

After sunset ( PM) — 300° (NW)

When you spot the tail, it will be pointing away from the sun (and horizon), as the solar wind pushes the comets gas and dust away.

There have been a lot of promised bright comets, but many of them have fizzled out, so it’s notoriously difficult to predict comets. But C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) has made it around the Sun without breaking up and is currently putting on a good show. So look for it soon, and enjoy it while we can. Maybe you’ll see it naked eye. If not, try binoculars or a telescope. It’s heading to the outer reaches of the Solar System, and won’t be back for 6,800 years!

Story First Published: 2020-07-08