Early risers this week can catch a glimpse of a brilliant comet streaking through the morning sky — and it doesn’t take a fancy telescope to see it.
The Comet NEOWISE can be seen low on the horizon to the northeast in Canada and the United States, where it’s suddenly become visible on its journey out of our solar system. The comet looks like a bright ball with a glowing tail moving across the sky at dawn.
The object can be easily spotted with binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens, although some skywatchers have also been able to spot it with the naked eye.
Comet NEOWISE is named for the NEOWISE spacecraft that discovered it in March, and it’s been visible from the southern hemisphere for quite a while. The ball of ice and space rock started showing up in the northern sky this week after surviving a lap around the sun.
It’s the first so-called “great comet” to streak through the sky in 2020, after two other highly-anticipated objects, Comet ATLAS and Comet SWAN, turned out to be duds earlier this year.
“About once a decade you get (a comet) that is really bright, (with) naked eye visibility,” Paul Delaney, an astronomy professor at York University, told Global News reporter Mike Armstrong. “That’s surprisingly what NEOWISE has become. We weren’t expecting it.”
The comet is visible at dawn in the morning until July 11, when it will reach its highest point in the sky, according to EarthSky.
Early birds will get to enjoy the comet’s visit this week, but night owls will have their moment later in the month.
Comet NEOWISE will switch up its schedule in mid-July, when it will appear just after sunset near the horizon in the northwest. EarthSky says the comet might stick around through the latter half of the month, when it will be higher in the sky at dusk.
“It will probably be best seen in binoculars,” the astronomy site says.
Astronomers and astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have already captured some spectacular photos and videos of the comet, which is officially called Comet C/2020 F3.
NASA chose an image of the comet from Lebanon as its photo of the day on Tuesday.
Like all comets, Comet NEOWISE is a ball of space dust, rock and ice that reflects sunlight while passing through the solar system.
“As it gets close to the sun you heat it up, and that’s what creates the tail,” Delaney said.
It’s unclear when the comet will disappear, but NASA says there should be plenty of opportunities to see it for yourself this month.
“The future brightness of Comet NEOWISE remains somewhat uncertain,” NASA says. “But the comet will likely continue to be findable not only in the early morning sky, but also next week in the early evening sky.”
—With files from Global News reporter Mike Armstrong