Seeing a comet in the night sky is a rare and fascinating occurrence and we will have that chance many times over the next week!
This comet is called Comet NEOWISE, getting its name after being discovered earlier this year by astronomers using NASA’s Near-Ear Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, (NEOWISE), which is a space telescope that launched in December of 2009. The comet was actually discover this year on March 27!
Comets are called the “dusty, (or dirty), snowballs” of space. A comet is basically a big chunk of ice, gases like carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane, and dust, which were left over from the formation of the solar system. Comets have an icy center surrounded by a large cloud of glass and dust, called the coma, which gives it the streaky tail look.
Comet NEOWISE has been visible the last several days across the United States and we have seen many pictures on social media. However, it had only been visible to most of us during the early morning hours (before 4am) while many of you were asleep. While it will still be visible in the morning (between 4am-4:45am) the next few days, it will also be visible just after sunset! The actual time varies every night, but it becomes visible shortly after 9pm the next few nights and will last about one in a half to two hours if skies are clear.
This photo above was sent in by viewer Stacey Galloway Reid over the Tennessee River in Lauderdale County Wednesday evening. Check out this photo of the comet over Stonehenge which was posted on Instagram by Declan Deval.
The one thing about these photos that you need to realize is that they are long exposure photos, which means you will not see it like that with the naked eye. The best way to view this is with binoculars or a telescope. You will also want to get to an area with dark skies, meaning get away from city lights, because is because it is not as bright in the sky as some of those more majestic comets.
But Brandon, where do I look? The best way to find Comet NEOWISE is to find the “Big Dipper”, part of the constellation Ursa Major, in the sky, which is to the northwest this time of year. The next few nights Comet NEOWISE will be lower on the horizon, but as we move towards the weekend it will be higher up in the sky and will be visible longer and longer every night.
Viewing should be best over the next two nights, Thursday and Friday, because skies look to be clear for most of the Valley. There will be a few more clouds possible Saturday and Sunday night.
How rare are these events? Take into account the most famous comet, Halley’s comet, last was visible to us in 1986 and isn’t likely to be visible again until 2061. If you miss Comet NEOWISE over the next week you’ll have to wait a little while to see it again. Projections are that it won’t return to the inner solar system for 6,800 years