Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, referred to frequently as just NEOWISE, will be soaring over the early morning skies on July 11, visible with the naked eye from Colorado. Although it’s visible with the eye alone, viewing it with binoculars or a small telescope will reveal the comet’s tail and an even more detailed view.
The best time to spot NEOWISE is 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise. For Montrose, that’s about 4:15 a.m. to 4:45 a.m. In the northeastern sky, it will be visible just below the constellation Auriga.
The comet was discovered in March by the space telescope Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE, hence the comet’s name). Like all other comets, NEOWISE is a chunk of ice and dust that orbits the Sun along with other objects in the solar system.
Most comets are located in the Oort Cloud (on the outskirts of the solar system beyond the orbit of Pluto), but when one gets close to the Sun, solar winds cause pieces of the comet to break off. This creates the “tail” of the comet, which always faces away from the Sun.
While getting close to the Sun can often put on a show, many comets completely burn up as a result of the close encounter. NEOWISE came closest to the Sun on July 3 but is still visible, proving that it survived the pass-by.
Comets are highly unpredictable, and while the comet should be visible on the evening northwest horizon from July 12 to 15 just after sunset, there’s no telling how bright it will be at that point. It could grow brighter or fade from view.
If you miss NEOWISE’s visit this time around, the next time you’ll be able to spot it will be the year 8786.