Comet NEOWISE Delights at Dawn

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Debra Ceravolo captured this stunning portrait of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) at 4 a.m. on July 8, 2020. She used a 300mm astrograph with a 2700mm focal length to make 160, 1-second stacked exposures. The camera was a SBIG STFSC8050 one shot color CCD cooled to –20° C. The resulting image is very similar to the view in a modest telescope.
Bob King

Whatever you do, see this comet. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I pointed a pair of 10 × 50 binoculars at NEOWISE on July 7th at dawn. OMG. What a sumptuous view! The comet’s head, a bright, yellow pea, sprouted a 3° pale orange tail that arched upwards in a most elegant way. With the naked eye, I saw a delicate streak of light about 1.5° long with a tiny, star-like coma. The image of a faint meteor jumped to mind.

Fred Espenak captured this pictorial view of the comet on July 7, 2020 with a 130mm focal length lens.
Fred Espenak

Far to the right of NEOWISE, Venus and Aldebaran glimmered in Taurus. Comparing the comet to Aldebaran (magnitude 0.9), I estimated its brightness at magnitude 1.4, by far the brightest comet to grace our skies since PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) in March 2013.

Comet in pink garb
Sometimes clouds can add a special beauty to celestial scenes. As a weather front moves into Minnesota at dawn on July 8th, Comet NEOWISE garbs itself in pink clouds.
Bob King

NEOWISE survived its July 3rd perihelion in grand form, glowing around magnitude 0, bright enough for some amateurs to spot it the very same day. It has since faded to magnitude 1.5–2 but its beauty is undiminished. In fact, the comet has become more extraordinary over the past few nights because it’s slowly climbing higher into a darker sky at the same time that the Moon is waning from full to third quarter. On July 8th the tail length had doubled to 6° (my estimate), and the comet appeared more obvious to the naked eye than the morning prior.

Long comet tail
I stretched the contrast on this July 8th image and measured the tail at approximately 6°. It was undoubtedly longer but blended with the dawn glow.
Bob King

I’ve heard from observers who’ve observed NEOWISE everywhere from the countryside to Los Angeles. The news is good. Check out this report from Richard K. Mitchell:

“Here in Albuquerque, the comet was a beautiful sight this morning (July 7). I could see it fairly easy with the naked eye but not an obvious sight, but very impressive sight in 10×50 binoculars. So I would encourage anyone in the “burbs” or a smaller city to give it a try.”

Comet at dawn
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is NEOWISE-comet-scene-wide-v2-July-8-2020-_S_edited-1-900×549.jpg Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) becomes part of the summer landscape at dawn on July 8, 2020 near Duluth, Minn. Details: 100mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 400, 5-second time exposure.
Bob King

Or this from Jim Twellman on July 8: “Observed once again from the I-64 overpass at Lake St Louis (an outlying suburb of St. Louis, MO. ) The comet was easily visible in 10 × 50s but was spectacular in the 15 × 70s.  Estimate 2.0 magnitude.”

I don’t want to give the impression that NEOWISE is super-easy to see — you still need know where to look — but once seen you’ll return to it with ease. Thank goodness for Capella. Located in the comet’s vicinity, this bright star points the way for novice and amateur observers alike.

Comet NEOWISE Finder Chart
Daily positions for Comet NEOWISE are shown for 0h UT through July 31. To convert to EDT, subtract 4 hours and back up to the previous date. For example, July 10th at 0h UT = July 9th at 8 p.m. EDT. The comet’s apparition begins in the morning sky but it soon becomes an evening object as it zips from Auriga to Ursa Major. Click on the image for a large chart.
Sky & Telescope

Although NEOWISE sits quite low and appears faint at the start of dawn, it quickly brightens as it gains altitude, offsetting (at least for a time) the intensifying twilight. The best time slot to see the object through July 11-12 is from 2 hours to 1 hour before sunrise. Click here to find when the Sun rises for your location. With 10 x 50 binoculars I’ve been able to follow the comet up to within 40 minutes of sunup.

Bifurcated tail
The comet’s bifurcated tail stands out clearly in this image, a combination of three photos made with 150 mm reflecting telescope on July 8, 2020.
Ali Ebrahimi Seraji

Through a telescope the colors are even more intense, but the most remarkable sight is the comet’s bifurcated tail — split in two by a dark, U-shaped channel. This feature is also visible in binoculars and photographs, but far more dramatic in a scope. I use a portable 10-inch f/4.5 Dobsonian at low magnification (48×). Bifurcated tails appear in comets that are actively producing massive quantities of dust either after a close passage to the Sun or during a major outburst.

Stunning comet
A faint, tendrily ion tail appears just above NEOWISE’s prominent dust tail on July 7, 2020. Michael Jaeger

NEOWISE has a prominent dust tail, formed when dust-rich ice vaporizes in the Sun’s heat. Micron-size dust particles scatter sunlight and glow faintly yellow. An enormous amount of dust must concentrate near the false nucleus because its yellow color is unmistakable. The comet is also developing a fainter, blue-hued ion tail from fluorescing carbon monoxide. Few observers have noted the ion tail visually yet, but you can’t miss it in Michael Jaeger’s photo.

Dawn comet viewing will be best through about July 18th, with the evening apparition starting about July 12th and continuing the remainder of the summer. Between July 12–18 you can observe it at both dusk and dawn.

Comet over Thunder Bay
This photo, taken July 8, 2020 from Thunder Bay, Ontario, perfectly captures the comet’s naked-eye appearance. Details: 80mm focal length at f/4, ISO 400 and 2-second exposure.
Dave Gallant

So set your alarm and plan to be out about 2 hours before sunrise (for now). Find a location with a good view of the northeastern sky, and don’t forget to bring binoculars and a camera. Most mobile phone photos will look grainy, but a basic DSLR on a tripod at ISO 800 with a 2-second exposure will net you an image you’d be happy to share on social media.

I hope good weather comes your way so you can see Comet NEOWISE while it’s still bright. Nothing would make me happier. By the time I wrapped up my July 7th observation I felt like I was floating on air with light beams shooting from my fingertips. As the comet vaporizes to create one of the most beautiful sky sights in years, you may just find that it will melt your heart, too.

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