By now you’ve heard of NEOWISE, the most spectacular comet to visit our little corner of the galaxy since Hale-Bopp passed through over 20 years ago. But we’re willing to bet you haven’t actually seen it with your own eyes. That’s because up until now, the only way to view this interstellar traveler was to wake up in the pre-dawn hours; an especially difficult requirement considering a large chunk of the population has gotten used to sleeping-in over the last few months.
But things are about to change as NEOWISE begins a new phase of its trip through our celestial neck of the woods. Having come to within 44.5 million km (27.7 million miles) of the sun on July 3rd, the comet is now making its way back out of our solar system. Thanks to the complex dance of the heavens, that means that observers in the Northern Hemisphere will now be able to see NEOWISE in the evening sky just above the horizon.
While NEOWISE might be beating a hasty retreat from Sol right now, the comet it actually getting closer to us in the process. On July 22nd it will reach perigee, that is, the point in its orbit closest to Earth. On that evening the comet will be approximately 103 million km (64 million miles) away. Not exactly a stone’s throw, but pretty close in astronomical terms. The comet will appear to be getting higher in the sky as it approaches Earth, and should be visible with the naked eye between 10 and 20 degrees above the northern horizon.
Most estimates say that NEOWISE should remain visible until at least the middle of August, though it will be dimming rapidly. After that, you’re going to have to wait awhile for a repeat showing. Given the orbit of this particular comet, it won’t come around our way again for approximately 6,800 years, give or take a few lifetimes.
NASA will be hosting a NEOWISE live stream tomorrow afternoon where researchers will answer questions about this once in a lifetime celestial event, though we think you’ll get a lot more out of it if you just go outside and look up.