Comet NEOWISE over Wilkes

VIEW OF COMET NEOWISE from Moore Mountain in the Pores Knob community. Local photographer and deejay John C. Vannoy took the photo about 4:45 a.m. July 11, looking northeast over Wilkes County. The photo was taken without magnification.

A newly discovered comet is now visible to the naked eye.

It’s the comet NEOWISE, named for the NASA satellite that first detected it in March - the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.

NEOWISE is the brightest comet visible in the Northern Hemisphere since Hale-Bopp in 1996-97. NASA said it's "no Hale-Bopp,” but it will still be one of the brightest this century.

NEOWISE is currently most visible between a little before 4:30 a.m. and about 5 a.m. in the northeastern sky. Look for a point of light with a fuzzy tail extending up and slightly to the left. 

Using a compass or compass app, it’s at about 40-50 degrees. Apps like SkyViewFree can be used to help find it. The comet appears higher in the sky for observers farther north, while observers at lower latitudes can view it lower in the sky. 

According to National Geographic, NEOWISE will be visible in the northwestern sky after sunset beginning around mid-July. Starting about an hour after sunset, it will rise increasingly higher in the sky as the month progresses, moving from the constellation Lynx toward the Big Dipper.

While it's visible with the naked eye in dark skies with little or no light pollution, it's best to use binoculars or other magnification.

The comet will reach its closest point to Earth on July 22, but whether it will still be visible to unaided eyes by then remains to be seen. However, viewers will be aided by the darkness of a new moon then.

Closer to August, a telescope will be needed to see NEOWISE.

Scientists say the comet is about three miles across. Its brush near the sun on July 3 caused gas and dust to burst off its icy outermost layers, creating a tail bright enough to be seen from Earth.

The nucleus of NEOWISE is covered with sooty material dating back to the origin of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

It will be about 7,000 years before the comet NEOWISE returns.

Appalachian State University’s Dark Sky Observatory near Phillips Gap in northern Wilkes County will have virtual viewing session by Zoom on the night of July 25. Details are at https://dso.appstate.edu.

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