Officially known as C/2020 F3, the celestial sight was first spotted by the NASA satellite NEOWISE (Near Earth Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) back in March. At the time, the object was making its approach to the sun — which is to say, nearing perihelion, or its closest approach to the star. Many comets don’t survive this part of the journey, but NEOWISE did.
It has since wrapped around the sun and is now on its way back out into the far reaches of the galaxy. Once it’s out of Earth’s view, it won’t be back for another 6,800 years, give or take, according to NASA.
For the remainder of July, the comet will be close enough to Earth — at a distance of about 64 million miles at its closest point — that it can be seen by the naked eye. However, the object will also be far enough from our planet that it poses no danger and will harmlessly pass by.
Already, observers on the ground have been capturing photos of the celestial visitor and posted them on social media. Indeed, NASA is compiling amateur snaps of NEOWISE and asking visitors to post them here.
Karl Battams, an astrophysicist with the Naval Research Laboratory, explained how viewers in the Northern Hemisphere can best see the comet.
“For the northern hemisphere, it’s very low to the horizon in the early morning. People need to get up early, but it’s easily visible with binoculars,” he said.
NEOWISE will also be more visible at dusk — at dusk and dawn, there is enough sunlight to see it against the night sky, but not so much that it’s washed out by sunlight.
According to The Patriot-News, skywatchers can look for Venus in the northeastern part of the sky about an hour before dawn. The bright star Capella will be to the left of Venus. NEOWISE will be below and a bit to the left of Capella.
Meanwhile, at least two astronauts have gotten views of the object that are sure to rival anything that can be seen on the ground. On July 4, Russian cosmonaut Ivan Vagner tweeted photos of NEOWISE, noting in his native language that the comet has a particularly long tail.
Similarly, American astronaut Bob Behnken, who recently caught a ride to the International Space Station via a SpaceX rocket launched from Florida, also tweeted spectacular photos of the comet from his unique vantage point.