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How to spot the comet NEOWISE, a cosmic snowball visible to the naked eye

A guide to viewing the icy space visitor as it soars in the evening sky.
The tiny shooting star in the lower center of this image is Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited above the Mediterranean Sea in between Tunisia and Italy on July 5, 2020.
The tiny shooting star in the lower center of this image is Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE pictured from the International Space Station as it orbited above the Mediterranean Sea in between Tunisia and Italy on July 5, 2020. [ National Aeronautics and Space Administration ]
Published Jul. 10, 2020

At last, a new excuse to safely leave your home: Now is the time to catch a socially-distanced glimpse at a new comet.

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE is the third — and brightest — comet of the year, according to Space.com. NEOWISE arrived near the sun on July 3, withstanding temperatures up to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit as it hurtled past the sun from 27.3 million miles away.

According to NASA, the comet’s brush near the sun caused gas and dust to burst off its icy outermost layers, creating a tail bright enough to be seen from Earth.

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

“In its discovery images, Comet NEOWISE appeared as a glowing, fuzzy dot moving across the sky even when it was still pretty far away,” said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator at the University of Arizona, in a release posted by NASA. “As soon as we saw how close it would come to the sun, we had hopes that it would put on a good show.”

How to spot the comet

NEOWISE was visible to the naked eye in the morning sky starting at the beginning of the week. But prime evening viewing conditions are coming this weekend, SPACE.com reported.

NEOWISE should be visible in the night sky after sunset Sunday, especially if it’s a clear night. Gaze low in the northwest sky to spot it then.

The comet will appear higher in the sky in the evenings that follow. As NEOWISE gets further from the sun, it will be visible later. Its closest approach to Earth — 64 million miles away — will come on July 22. Closer to August, you’ll have to break out the telescope to see it.

Here are some sights that have already been captured of NEOWISE’s approach: