Say hello to NEOWISE, the brightest comet in over 20 years

By Matthew Sylvester, Special to The Record

A rare spectacle will be visible to the naked eye during the late evening for the next week or so as the comet NEOWISE approaches its closest point to the sun. People in both hemispheres will be treated to a view that hasn’t been seen since the Hale-Bopp comet shot by the Earth in 1996.
The comet gets its name from the mission that discovered it on March 27 of this year, the NEOWISE space telescope, a satellite on an extended mission in the emerging field of studying near-earth objects.
“This is probably the most spectacular [astronomical] occurrence this year,” said Dr Lorne Nelson, professor of physics and astronomy at Bishop’s University, during an interview. While the comet is pretty average as far as balls of rock and ice in space go, scientists are using the rare opportunity of one passing so close to gain extra insight on its composition.
And an incredible opportunity it is, given that the orbit of NEOWISE takes it on a detour deep into the outskirts of the solar system only once every 6,800 years. At the peak of its orbit, the comet is over 20 times further away from the sun than Pluto.
“We plan on observing the comet ourselves,” Nelson explained, referring to the team running the observatory on the roof of the university. The images taken by the team will be visible to the public for free on the Bishop’s website via this link:
In the meantime, though, Nelson encourages readers to look out for the comet themselves in the evening sky. The comet will be at its most visible at 10 p.m. just a few hours after sunset, about 10 degrees above the horizon. In order to find it in the night sky, Nelson suggests looking first for the bottom most star in the pan of the big dipper, outstretching your arm, then looking three fist lengths down and slightly to the right. The comet’s bright trail will look like a tiny cloud to the naked eye, but more detail should be visible with just a pair of binoculars.

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