Celebration of space - July 17, 2020

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE over northern Rhode Island by Robert Horton

Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE over northern Rhode Island by Robert Horton

This past week, Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE became easily naked eye visible in the evening sky. At Frosty Drew Observatory we have had a difficult time catching a view of Comet NEOWISE in the morning pre-dawn sky due to clouds and fog of late. But this past Wednesday (July 15, 2020) we were granted a completely stunning view of the comet in the evening sky. We measured the tail of the comet at 10° long to the unaided eye! The nucleus of the comet is quite bright, almost like a large blurry star. As for the data, Comet NEOWISE is rapidly approaching Earth, with a closest approach date occurring on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Considering that the comet’s nucleus is much larger than expected (approx. 3 miles in diameter), we could see fabulous views of the comet for the next several weeks. As far as Northern Hemisphere comets go, Comet NEOWISE is the brightest since Comet C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. This comet also has similar characteristics of very bright comet’s that have previously been visible, including Comet Hale-Bopp. That makes us very excited for a continued good showing of the comet. We were able to capture some fantastic images of Comet NEOWISE this past Wednesday and will be posting images to our website and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/FrostyDrewObservatory) later today and over the next several weeks. Additionally, we will post finder charts, applicable to the evening sky, later today to aide in your hunt for the comet. Though practically speaking, a finder chart is just not necessary. Step outside about 1 hour after sunset and look to the NW. That bright spot with a fanned-out tail, that’s Comet NEOWISE! If you have captured a photo of Comet F3 NEOWISE, post it to the Visitor Posts section of our Facebook page and we will share it on our timeline. Please note that we will not share images that have been attached via comments to other posts!

On Monday, July 20, 2020, Earth will reach the point in its orbit where Saturn is placed on the opposite side of Earth than the Sun. This is called Opposition, and marks Saturn’s closest point to Earth for our year. On that date, Saturn will rise at sunset and set at sunrise, giving us a full night of observing opportunities. After opposition, Saturn will be above the horizon at sunset, climbing a bit higher with each passing night. During the period around opposition is the best time to observe Saturn due to it’s close proximity (836,138,209 miles distant) and because Saturn will be in direct sunlight from our vantage point. What makes Saturn special regarding opposition, compared to the other outer planets, is Saturn’s 26.7° tilt on its axis, coupled with Saturn’s orbital period of 30 Earth-years. Though Saturn's tilt does not change, the orientation of Saturn’s tilt as it relates to our viewing position does. As Earth catches up to Saturn, in our yearly orbit, we see the tilt of Saturn’s rings wane and wax. Summer Solstice on Saturn happened in 2017, during which time the rings were at maximum 26.7° tilt towards the Sun, and consequently towards Earth during opposition. This allowed for the best view of the top-side of Saturn’s rings in a 30 year period. Currently the rings are waning, allowing for a very subtle view of Saturn’s disk (the planet surface area) to become visible beneath the rings. All that aside, stop in at Frosty Drew Observatory this summer and autumn and see how amazing this all looks with your own eyes!

Evening passes of the International Space Station (ISS) continue this week. Which is awesome considering that you will see the ISS passing while you are out observing Comet NEOWISE! Here are some notable pass times for the coming days:

Fri, Jul 17 at 9:15pm, starting in WSW, rising to 61°, heading towards the NE ← Awesome pass!
Sat, Jul 18 at 10:05 pm, starting in WNW, rising to 22°, right over comet NEOWISE!
Sun, Jul 19 at 9:16 pm, starting in W, rising to 28°, right over comet NEOWISE!
Mon, Jul 20 at 10:09 pm, starting in NW, rising to 16°, right over comet NEOWISE!
Tue, Jul 21 at 9:18 pm, starting in WNW, rising to 18°, potentially right across comet NEOWISE!

These times are applicable for Southern New England, and generally acceptable for the entire Northeast. For additional daily passes, visit the frosty drew satellite prediction utility. For pass times specific to your location, visit NASAs Spot the Station.

This is the week to get out and see Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE since the New Moon occurs on Monday, July 20th, and dark skies will rock. Not to mention that you will have the addition of the ISS and Jupiter / Saturn conjunction to make for a spectacular night. If at Frosty Drew, the Milky Way will also be out. What a week! If we see good viewing opportunities happening this week, we will host special events to view the comet every night we can! So check back frequently on our events calendar.

Scott MacNeill
Scott MacNeill
Entry Date:
Jul 17, 2020
Published Under:
Scott MacNeill's Columns
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