Go Out and See Comet NEOWISE

A Bright New Comet is Visible from Ridgecrest

Ralph Paonessa  –  July 7, 2020
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 will 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

Comet NEOWISE is near the Sun now, so you'll have to search in the direction of where the sun rises or, later in July, sets. Enlarge the charts below for reference. Here are the approximate directions to where the comet will be; you can also use a compass or smartphone compass app to find the direction in degrees.

  • View from the darkest location available, especially in the direction you'll be looking. Light pollution will make it harder to see the faint tail. 
  • Start looking well before sunrise (before July 15), or after sunset (after July 15), otherwise the sky will be too bright. (Note: July 15 is an approximate date.)
  • 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.

Until July 15, search before Sunrise

  • Comet rises 3:45 AM, but will be difficult to see until a little higher at 4:00-4:30 AM.
  • Direction 45° (North-East).
  • It will be well to the left of very bright Venus, and below bright star Capella. The comet will be to the left (North) of where the sun will rise.
  • Twilight begins 5:15 AM, and it will get harder to see in the brightening sky.

After July 15, search after Sunset

Around the middle of the month, the comet transitions to the evening sky. Keep in mind that the mountains to the West of Ridgecrest will block the actual horizon, so you should adjust these times a little earlier. From a location like Walker Pass, you'll have a better view.

If you can, make a note of where on the horizon the Sun sets. The comet will be about 10-15° to the right (North) of this, but higher in the sky when it becomes visible.

July 15 — Search from twilight 8:35 PM until comet sets 10:48 PM.

  • Direction 325° (North-West). Magnitude 9.35

July 20 — Search from twilight 8:32 PM until comet sets 0:08 AM.

  • Direction 310-330° (NW-NNW). Magnitude 9.88
  • The comet is predicted to be less bright now, but may be more dramatic in the dark sky before it sets near midnight.

July 25 and beyond

NEOWISE is getting dimmer (mag 10.5) , and soon will require binoculars or a telescope to see, but it may still be quite dramatic in photographs. By September 1 it is predicted to dim to mag 15, and before the end of the year will only be observable from the Southern Hemisphere with large telescopes.

Comet NEOWISE before Sunrise
Comet NEOWISE before Sunrise

This chart shows the position of the comet in the northeast around 4:30 AM for the 3 weeks beginning July 8. The blue circles show the position on following days. When it begins to drop down, it will become harder or impossible to see in the morning.

Comet NEOWISE before Sunset
Comet NEOWISE before Sunset

This chart shows the position of the comet in the northwest around 8:30 PM for the 3 weeks beginning July 8. The blue circles show the position on following days. On July 8, it is too low at sunset to see. But in the following days and weeks, it rises higher and you should be able to spot it. Just when it will show up is hard to say because of the mountains to the West of Ridgecrest. It is also hard to predict the changes in brightness; but it will be getting dimmer each day as it moves away from Earth and the Sun.

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!

The Orbit of Comet NEOWISE through the Inner Solar System
The Orbit of Comet NEOWISE through the Inner Solar System

The large elliptical orbit of this comet has already taken it past perihelion (closest approach to Sun). It is moving from left to right in this diagram, as it passes Earth and heads towards the distant Oort Cloud at the edge of our Solar System. (The vertical blue lines reach to the ecliptic plane of the Solar System. The current predictions are that C/2020 F3 will return around 8820, so mark you calendars if you miss it this time!

File under: Astronomy