Residents across New England have a chance this month to spot an incredibly bright comet as it passes by Earth — the last time it will be visible from the planet for 6,800 years, astronomers said.
The comet, named NEOWISE after the mission that discovered it, is one of only a few comets that will be able to be seen with the naked eye this century, according to a statement from NASA.
NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer first detected the comet on March 27, NASA said. Since then, people across the globe have repeatedly seen NEOWISE soar across the sky.
All eyes on #CometNEOWISE!— NASA Sun & Space (@NASASun) July 13, 2020
Since the comet's discovery on March 27 by @NASA's #NEOWISE, this visitor to the inner solar system has been spotted by countless photographers, @Space_Station astronauts, and NASA spacecraft like #ParkerSolarProbe. More at https://t.co/zRZbnDaNLz. pic.twitter.com/pojQkQP0fL
Federica Spoto, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said comets that can be seen with just the human eye or with a pair of binoculars, like NEOWISE, are rare. Astronomers haven’t observed a comet this bright since 1997, when Comet Hale-Bopp passed by Earth, Spoto said.
“I’m excited because this will be my once-in-a-lifetime possibility of seeing this comet with my naked eye,” Spoto said. “I think that’s great that we can witness its long voyage. And it’s amazing that I can see this from my backyard without the use of a telescope.”
The comet is 64 million miles away from Earth and is roughly 4.6 billion years old, about the age of the solar system, according to NASA.
“It looks like the comet nucleus is sooty and covered by dark particles left over from its formation,” Spoto said. “I love the fact that studying these objects is like going back in time, when everything formed from dust and particles.”
The comet will be closest to Earth on July 22 as it heads toward the outer solar system. But it’s already visible from New England this week, Spoto said. NEOWISE is visible for about an hour before sunrise close to the horizon in the northeastern sky, and it can also be spotted after sunset in the northwestern horizon.
NEOWISE is viewed best away from city lights. But because this comet is so bright, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said residents in the city could get a glimpse of it, too.
“You should be able to make it out from Boston, but it’ll look much bigger and more spectacular if you can see the fainter outer parts of the tail, and that needs dark skies out in the country,” McDowell said.
While scientists discover dozens of comets each year, most are far away and hard to see, he said.
“It’s exciting that this is one that is easily visible,” McDowell said. “That’ll also make it easier for scientists to study — for example, measuring the light from it to find out what its chemical composition is.”