CASPER, Wyo. — The “NEOWISE” comet is so-named because it was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer on March 27, 2020.
The comet is expected to become visible in the northern hemisphere shortly after sundown sometime between July 12-15, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
“Beginning around mid-July, the comet will be visible in the northwestern sky after sunset, arcing slowly upward beneath the stars of the Big Dipper,” National Geographic reports.
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The comet’s full name is C/2020 F3 NEOWISE and “the comet made its once-in-our-lifetimes close approach to the Sun on July 3, 2020, and will cross outside Earth’s orbit on its way back to the outer parts of the solar system by mid-August,” according to NASA.
The comet has been visible recently and will continue to be visible from Earth, including from Wyoming. The National Weather Service in Riverton captured some images of the comet on the night of Wednesday, July 8.
“We had a visitor last night,” the NWS in Riverton said. Here are their photos (story continues below):
NASA says the comet came “just inside” Mercury’s orbit on July 3.
“This very close passage by the Sun is cooking the comet’s outermost layers, causing gas and dust to erupt off the icy surface and creating a large tail of debris,” NASA explained. “And yet the comet has managed to survive this intense roasting.”
“People wishing to catch a glimpse of the glowing comet can spot it as it swings through the inner solar system, but its nearness to the Sun creates some observing challenges.”
NASA said on Wednesday that the comet may be visible for a few days about an hour ahead of sunrise in the northeastern part of the sky when looking from the United States.
“Observers might be able to see the comet’s central core, or nucleus, with the naked eye in dark skies; using binoculars will give viewers a good look at the fuzzy comet and its long, streaky tail,” NASA said. “As it speeds away from the Sun, Comet NEOWISE will begin to make its appearance in the evening sky shortly after sunset on July 11.”
The NEOWISE equipment which discovered the comet were two infrared channels which detected the heat signature given off by the comet as it approached the Sun.
“Observers all over the world are racing to see the natural fireworks display before the comet speeds away into the depths of space,” NASA added. “Even the astronauts aboard the International Space Station spotted it from their vantage point high above Earth’s atmosphere.”
The NEOWISE spacecraft was launched in Dec. 2009. NASA says it was originally called WISE and was not designed to study asteroids or comets. It had an expected lifetime of only seven months.
“Although incapable of discovering large numbers of near-Earth asteroids and comets, the spacecraft has provided information on their numbers and sizes based on a sample of them and was repurposed for this use in 2013 by what is now known as NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office,” NASA said.
NEOWISE will pass Earth at a distance of 64 million miles, according to NASA, and therefore poses no threat. But the comet gives astronomers the chance to learn more about it.
“From its infrared signature, we can tell that it is about 5 kilometers [3 miles] across, and by combining the infrared data with visible-light images, we can tell that the comet’s nucleus is covered with sooty, dark particles left over from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago,” said Joseph Masiero, NEOWISE deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California in NASA’s release.
The NEOWISE spacecraft is expected to eventually re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in a harmless manner, NASA said, which will bring an end to its mission.
“The University of Arizona and JPL are now working on developing a highly capable next-generation space-based telescopic survey called the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission (NEOSM),” NASA said. “If fully funded, NEOSM would greatly expand NASA’s ability to identify, track, and characterize asteroids and comets that could potentially impact Earth. This would help the agency reach a near-Earth asteroid discovery goal set before it by Congress, and would complement existing and planned ground-based efforts.”
“NEOSM would optimize the NEOWISE mission’s architecture for the study of near-Earth objects, improving it by using next-generation infrared sensors and strategic operations that would allow it to search a much larger swath of space around Earth’s orbit.”
More information about NEOWISE is available from: