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School of Physics and Astronomy

Rare naked-eye comet NEOWISE lights up the sky

A recently-discovered comet has become visible to the naked eye during twilight. QMUL astronomer Thomas Haworth has been making the most of this rare opportunity by taking some photos!

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Comet NEOWISE, seen by Dr Thomas Haworth from Chelmsford on 10th July.

The Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) is a space telescope that hunts for asteroids and comets in the vicinity of the Earth. On the 27th March 2020 it discovered a new comet which is currently visible to the naked eye and is expected to be so for much of July 2020.

Comet NEOWISE is sufficiently bright that it can bee seen in urban areas. QMUL’s Dr Thomas Haworth photographed the comet on the 10th July at 1:30am in the city of Chelmsford. These images are 5 second exposures (the camera shutter is open for 5 seconds) so more light is collected than you would see with the naked eye. It is also stunning through binoculars. There is of course something special about seeing it with nothing but your eyes though.

The comet is currently quite close to the horizon in the UK, but as the month progresses it will move higher in the sky and be observable in the evening rather than just the early hours of the morning. Here is a handy graphic from Pete Lawrence (@Avertedvision) showing where the comet will be in the sky and when it will be visible from the 18th of July to mid-August. To help you get your bearings, if you can find the Big Dipper (which we will call the saucepan here), look below the pan, closer to the horizon, either an hour or two after sunset, or an hour or so before sunrise to have the best chance of seeing it. It's still quite faint, but if you're in a dark enough area you should be able to see the tail.

More beautiful photos of the comet can be seen on the APOD website.