It’s an amazing time to look up to the night sky! For the first time in nearly 6700 years, comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE has made it’s return to the inner solar system. These small, icy, dirty clumps remain dim and dark through over 90% of their journey from the distant reaches of the Solar System, but once they close in on the immense heat of our nearest star, things change.
The ice melts, pockets of trapped gas burst forth, releasing dust, ionizing particles as they are blown millions of kilometres behind in an extensive trail. Comets are unpredictable by nature, and there are many cases where the next ‘comet of the century’ with hype and promise, fizzles and remains nearly invisible. My usual example is Comet ISON in 2015.
However, the opposite can also be true. A comet that no one pays attention to can suddenly brighten and become something seen and enjoyed by millions around the world. This is the case with the new comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, which became nearly visible to the naked eye over the past few weeks. It could be decades before we see another comet like this, and so now is the time to go see it, observe it, photograph it, and share it with everyone!
There are plenty of maps of where the comet will be, but I find the best way is to actually import the data into stellarium. It’s a free and fun way to track the comet from where you live, and doesn’t take a lot of effort to set up. Here’s what to do (use the slideshow at the bottom to follow along):
- Go to www.stellarium.org and download the free software. It’s open source, no ads, and lightweight!
- Install and run the software, make sure to specify your location
- On the left menu, choose ‘configuration’
- On the top menu of the window that opens, select ‘Plugins’
- On the left bar, scroll down and select ‘Solar System Editor’
- Click ‘configure’
- Choose the ‘Solar System’ tab along the top bar.
- Select ‘Import orbital elements in MPC format’
- Choose ‘comets’ and select ‘MPC’s list of observable comets’ from the dropdown menu
- Click ‘get orbital elements’
- Click ‘Mark all’ and then ‘Add Objects’
- Close all the menus, and you’re done!
Now you can go to the search window by pressing F3, type ‘C/2020 F3 NEOWISE’ and hit enter, and you’ll see the comet selected. Now you can change the time to evening and see where the comet will appear from your location.
The comet is around it’s peak brightness right now, and is expected to reach it’s closest approach to Earth on July 23rd, 2020. This means there is still plenty of great viewing to be had, and now that it’s passed into evening skies, a lot more people can see it without waking up before the Sun!
Happy Comet hunting!