Comet NEOWISE for the past few weeks has been a stunning object in the pre-dawn sky. It is now visible to evening stargazers and those who like to stay up all night.
What is Comet NEOWISE?
Comets are basically huge lumps of rock, dust and ice travelling through our solar system. They originate in either from the Kuiper belt or the Oort Cloud. The Kuiper belt being an asteroid belt past the orbit of Neptune and the Oort cloud being a huge spherical shell of icy bodies surrounding the solar system. The Oort cloud extends around 3 light years, over half way to the next closest star to the sun.
These icy objects, some many miles across are knocked out of their orbits by the gravity of a passing star, other comets or asteroids. They can either be flung out into interstellar space or head towards the sun. Some orbit the sun every few years and some can take hundreds or thousands of years to complete the journey.
When these huge dirty snowballs enter the inner solar system, the heat of the sun causes the surface ices etc to sublimate and let off gasses and plumes of dust. These form the comets tail. Comet tails can extend many hundreds of thousands or even millions of miles.
From Earth we can occasionally see comets as they head towards or away from the sun. Many are quite famous, such as Haleys Comet which is featured in the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman invasion in 1066 and will be back in our skies in 2061.
What’s The Difference Between a Comet and a Shooting Star?
Comets are huge and many miles or kilometers in diameter. Very similar to asteroids, which are more rocky and don’t tend to form tails like comets do.
Asteroids and comets can turn into meteors and burn up in our atmosphere. Due to their large size they impact the surface and turn into meteorites. A comet impact is the main suspect for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Comets, don’t shoot across the sky and appear to hang motionless with the stars. They change position slowly night to night and can last several weeks.
Meteors, otherwise known as shooting stars are much, much smaller. On average they are the size of pebbles to grains of sand. They burn up very quickly as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. They appear as bright streaks of light or fireballs that can last anything from a blink of an eye, to several seconds. The Perseid Meteor Shower is in August. A post for that coming soon.
How to See Comet NEOWISE in July
Comet Neowise is now an evening object and may be easier to spot earlier in the evenings as the month moves on. At time of writing this post, it was visible around 11pm.
All you need is a clear north, north westerly horizon. The comet is west of the bright multicoloured star Capella and is in the constellation of Lynx.
It’s fairly obvious to the naked eye, but not massive. If you hold your hand out at arms length, you can cover the comet with your little finger.
The comet will get higher and move more to the west each evening, but is expected to get dimmer and harder to spot naked eye by the 23rd so good luck spotting it. Hopefully it will be visible a bit longer so we can have a bit more time enjoying it.