Iowa City, Iowa – The manager of the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Observatories says Iowans should take advantage of a very rare opportunity to see a comet this week. Caroline Roberts, who also coordinates the U-I’s Astronomy Laboratory, says to spot this spectacle in the sky, you’ll either have to stay up late or set the alarm to get up early.
Its full name is Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, or just NEOWISE for short. The comet gets its name from the orbiting NASA space telescope which discovered it, called NEOWISE, for Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. If you want to see the comet, you’ll have to be looking in the right place — low on the horizon, depending on when you venture out.
Unlike a meteor, which makes a fast, bright streak across the sky, the comet will appear stationary and you don’t need any special equipment to see it.
Binoculars or a telescope should help reveal the comet as a bright spot in the dark sky along with its trailing white tail. By Monday or so, the comet will appear to rise higher in the nighttime sky, while it will become impossible to see in the early mornings. NEOWISE is a fairly large comet, about three miles across. Chicken Little can rest assured, the sky isn’t falling, and Roberts says this distant, icy ball will not threaten life on our planet.
NEOWISE is considered a long-period comet, which means it won’t be back around for about 7,000 years. Follow this link for details about NEOWISE from NASA.