You’ve undoubtedly seen the headlines: a recently-discovered comet, NEOWISE, has been inspiring people across the world to head out and spot it on its journey leaving our part of the solar system.
Comet NEOWISE – formally C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) – was discovered in late March 2020, just as much of the world entered lockdown due to the coronavirus. On its discovery, it was moving toward perihelion, and astronomers were not sure if it would survive its close approach to the sun. Thankfully, it didn’t break up as the sun warmed its rocky, icy body, and now we’re enjoying an epic comet view as NEOWISE makes its way back away from the sun and out into the solar system.
If you’re trying to spot Comet NEOWISE, I’ve put together this quick guide to help you improve your chances. Read on for tips on how to see NEOWISE in the next few weeks, before it fades from view and continues on its 6,766 year orbit.
Tip #1. Find a Dark Sky Spot
While some guides suggest you need to escape bright city lights, you don’t need to go far out of the urban core of your nearest city to see Comet NEOWISE. After all, there have been some epic photos of NEOWISE taken right in some of the world’s biggest and brightest cities!
Use our stargazing city guides to find stargazing spots near your closest city, then head out to one within an hour’s drive. In particular, look for a place with a good view of the northern sky with no obstructions and a very low horizon, because…
Tip #2. Look in the Right Part of the Sky
Comet NEOWISE is still in a similar part of the sky to the sun, which is why we can only see it in the northeastern sky (in the morning) and northwestern sky (in the evening).
NEOWISE is only between 5-20° above the horizon, depending on the time you’re trying to view it. So you can’t have any trees, hills, buildings, or mountains in these directions if you hope to see the comet!
The easiest way to spot NEOWISE in the evenings is to look for the Big Dipper/Plough. If you draw a line through the stars Megrez and Merak to the horizon, Comet NEOWISE is a little to the right of that line.
Tip #3. Get the Right Timing
Speaking of timing, let’s dig into that more:
- Comet NEOWISE is visible during nautical twilight in the mornings, about 60-90 minutes before sunrise depending on your latitude.
- NEOWISE is visible during nautical twilight in the evenings, about 60-90 minutes after sunset depending on your latitude.
However, NEOWISE is increasingly low in the sky during the mornings and higher in the sky during the evenings (rising from 10-20° over the remainder of the month), so your best bet is to try and see the comet during the evenings.
Tip #4. Allow Your Eyes to Adjust
Comet NEOWISE is definitely visible to the naked eye, but it may take your eyes a few minutes to adjust before you spot its bright body and dusty tails. The body of NEOWISE is roughly magnitude 2 to 2.5, similar to Mizar (in the Big Dipper), Polaris (the North Star), Denebola (in Leo), or Algol (in Perseus). This means it looks like a star under clear skies and good air quality.
The give away that there’s something special about NEOWISE is its tails. The dusty tail is easy to spot, and stretches over 10 million miles across space. NEOWISE’s ion tail is much more faint and harder to spot with any light pollution – die hard comet chasers will want to head to truly dark skies to try and see it.
Tip #5. Try Photographing NEOWISE
If you want to capture photos of NEOWISE like the ones in this post, you’re not alone!
We have resources on astrophotography including tips and recommended cameras to help get you started. You’ll want to ensure you have a tripod and use a long exposure to try and capture NEOWISE in a permanent way. However, I had luck shooting photos of NEOWISE with my iPhone camera and night mode, so even if you don’t have all the gear, you can potentially get a good photo anyway.
To sum it up: to see Comet NEOWISE you should try and go out during the evenings, about an hour after sunset, and look toward the northwestern sky under the Big Dipper.
I hope this helps you spot Comet NEOWISE when you’re out in the next few weeks. Have questions? Let me know in the comments!