ST. LOUIS – You don’t have to be an early bird to catch a view of a once-in-a-lifetime comet. Stargazers in the northern hemisphere can now see the comet known as NEOWISE just after sunset.
“It’s really almost 20 years now since we’ve had a good, visible comet for us to look forward to. But that drought has really come to an end this year. NEOWISE is putting on a great show,” said Will Snyder, the manager of the James. S. McDonnell Planetarium at the St. Louis Science Center.
Snyder is referring to Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Why so few? Most comets don’t survive their closest approach to the sun.
“When we’re looking at a comet, you know, you think of it as that cosmic, dirty ice ball in the solar system. And, sometimes, it gets too close to the sun. It doesn’t survive. It breaks up,” Snyder said.
But NEOWISE survived and is now passing near Earth. Look northwest, right under the Big Dipper, about 45 minutes after sunset. While not needed, binoculars or a telescope will offer a better view. This is the best time of the month to see the comet because we are approaching the new moon, meaning there is very little moonlight.
“You do want to, obviously, give yourself the darkest sky possible,” Snyder said. “And when we don’t have something like the moon shining back at us that definitely helps. But anytime you can get away from city lights or, even if you can’t travel, just turning off lights that you might have around your property.”
Comet NEOWISE isn’t the only celestial body you can see just after sunset. Swing yourself to the east and you’ll see the planets Jupiter and Saturn.
“They’re rising pretty much right after sunset right now in the eastern sky. So, almost 180 degrees from where you are looking for the comet. So, no matter where you look, you may see something cool.”
Add to that, St. Louis is back in the path of the International Space Station and there will be several chances to see it pass by over the next several days.
And don’t worry early risers; you can still catch a great showing by the planet Venus in the eastern sky before sunrise.
NEOWISE will make its closest approach to earth on July 22; after that, it will gradually fade. It won’t be back for 6,800 years. Read more information from NASA here.
Track the International Space Station: spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings