Eyes to the evening sky

July is your chance to see one of the brightest comets in decades.

July 20, 2020 

The comet NEOWISE pays us a visit

This month you’ll be able to see one of the brightest comets to cross the sky in decades, and one of the first visible to the naked eye in the 21st century. The chunk of ice has been nicknamed “NEOWISE” after the telescope (the Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey) that first spotted it in March. Unlike many comets, NEOWISE survived the journey through its nearest point to the sun and emerged to dazzle sky watchers.

How to see it

For the rest of the month North Carolinians will be able to see the comet in the early evening with binoculars. Look to the north-northeastern horizon and you’ll (hopefully) find it!

As the comet passes near the sun, the sun’s intense light and heat causes the comet to put off gases and dust, creating that classic comet tail. In order to see the comet's details, you'll need binoculars, though you can still see a bright smudge without them. Comet NEOWISE will be closest to Earth on July 22-23, 2020.

What are comets again?

Comets are made up of rocks, ice, dust and gases and can be miles wide. When they encounter heat from the sun, they blow off gases that can be as long as millions of miles. Comets are leftover fragments from the formation of the solar system, and there are likely billions of them orbiting the sun. The difference between an asteroid and a comet is that comets generally contain more ice—they’re known as “greasy snowballs.” That’s because they formed further away from the sun than asteroids. Comets also have tails, again because of the amount of ice they have, which destabilizes and off-gasses as they get closer to the sun.