Comet NEOWISE captivates skywatchers through the end of July


Eli Shafer

Comet NEOWISE as seen on July 9th in Cathcart WA. Photo by Eli Shafer

Sofia Leotta, Copy Editor

Comet NEOWISE, officially known as C/2020 F3, has recently sparked a glimmer of excitement around the world as it passes close to Earth in its travel through space. The bright comet is visible through the later half of July 2020 and came closest to Earth on July 22. It was discovered on March 27, 2020, by NASA’s “NEOWISE” infrared space telescope, giving it the unofficial name, NEOWISE. With it’s near-parabolic orbit around the sun, NEOWISE will not be back in an area of visibility for another 6,800 years after it continues past Earth in the summer of 2020.

About an hour after sunset, the 3-mile-wide comet can be found below the Big Dipper star pattern. Contributing to the widespread appeal of viewing NEOWISE, the comet can be seen in most areas with the naked eye. Whereas technical equipment, such as a telescope or binoculars, are usually needed for viewing comets, NEOWISE’s brightness makes it especially visible against the night sky. 

“I went to Mukilteo Lighthouse Park and didn’t even need binoculars to see it, ” senior Nandira Mahmud said. “It was very clear and easy to find because of the tail.” 

The comet can be identified by the tail trailing upwardly behind it. Its tail forms as a result of the sun’s heat on its surface. When NEOWISE orbits closer to the sun, materials of the comet, such as dust and gases, warm up. This material then leaves the comet’s surface, forming into the tail shape that can be viewed from Earth. 

As it remains close to Earth, skygazers from around the world enjoy the view. In King County, it can best be seen in high-elevated areas with low-light pollution or places by the Puget Sound where most of the sky is visible. 

“It was a really incredible experience,” senior Mia Bardsley said after seeing NEOWISE from a beach on the Puget Sound. “I’ve never had the opportunity to see a comet before.” 

Despite NEOWISE’s long visibility period through the end of July, the comet is quickly passing Earth, traveling at a speed of approximately 40 miles per second. NEOWISE will be significantly less visible as August approaches, and soon may be impossible to view without a telescope. 

Nevertheless, the comet’s appearance has served a small, yet meaningful role in unifying people across the world. After months of spending time indoors due to the coronavirus, NEOWISE offers sky-enthusiasts worldwide an opportunity to leave their homes for a night and appreciate one of nature’s stunning wonders.