CHALMERS — Barring any cloud cover, White County stargazers may have noticed a new object in the morning sky — one that hasn’t been seen in nearly seven millennia.
And once it’s gone, it won’t be back for another 6,800 years.
Comet C/2020 F3, also known as Comet NEOWISE, has been flying through the inner solar system and recently survived a close approach to the sun sometime around July 1. It has been getting brighter with each passing day in the early morning sky, but people who want to see it this week will have to get up before dawn to see it.
Comet NEOWISE — named after NASA’s asteroid-hunting telescope that first spotted the comet in March — can be seen with the naked eye, but you need to know what time and what direction to look because it is not the most prominent feature in the sky. It is best viewed with a simple telescope, pair of binoculars or a strong telephoto camera lens.
While numerous photos show it as a bright object, it’s not. To the unaided eye, it looks more like a faint star with a fuzzy tail.
Through the remainder of this week, onlookers in White County can see it between 4:20 a.m. and the early beginnings of sunrise in the northeastern sky.
According to NASA.com, people who aren’t early morning risers will be able to see the comet, beginning Sunday, in the northwestern evening sky, just below the Big Dipper, shortly after sunset. It will take about an hour or less before it, too, dips below the horizon.
“From mid-July on, it’s best viewed as an evening object, rising increasingly higher above the northwestern horizon,” NASA officials stated on the space agency’s website. “Its closest approach to Earth will be on July 22, at a distance of about 64 million miles.”
For comparison, the sun is about 93 million miles from Earth.
People may want to look for it sooner rather than later as it will gradually become dimmer later in the month as it speeds away from the sun.
It is difficult to know when a comet such as NEOWISE will come along and put on a bright display in the sky. Earlier this year, astronomers predicted that Comet SWAN and Comet ATLAS would light up the sky, but both fizzled and disintegrated as it approached the sun.