Newly Discovered Comet NEOWISE is Streaking Across the Sky and Giving Us Life

Video: We discuss the newly discovered comet with Michelle Nichols, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, on “Chicago Tonight.” (Produced by Paul Caine)

Between stunning supermoons and amazing planetary conjunctions, it feels like outer space has been working overtime lately to distract us Earthlings from the dumpster fire that is 2020.

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All of those stellar shows were just a warmup act for Comet NEOWISE, streaking across July’s skies in a blaze of glory. 

The 3-mile-wide comet was only just discovered in March, and it’s easy to see how that news got lost in the coronavirus shuffle. 

“In its discovery images, Comet NEOWISE appeared as a glowing, fuzzy dot moving across the sky even when it was still pretty far away,” said Amy Mainzer, NEOWISE principal investigator at the University of Arizona. “As soon as we saw how close it would come to the Sun, we had hopes that it would put on a good show.”

Labeled a “binocular event,” especially if you want to see the comet’s split tail, NEOWISE has been dazzling early risers in the pre-dawn hours since the beginning of July. As the comet now speeds away from the sun, it will begin to appear in the evening sky shortly after sunset, according to NASA

People in northern latitudes in the U.S. and Canada should be able to catch a glimpse of NEOWISE both before sunrise and after sunset. NEOWISE will swing closest to Earth July 22-23. For viewing tips, click here

NASA describes comets as “cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the Sun. When a comet’s orbit brings it close to the Sun, it heats up and spews dust and gases into a giant glowing head larger than most planets.”

In pretty much any other context, gaseous emissions are to be avoided, but seek out NEOWISE while you can. It will pass out of view in August and then won’t be seen again for another 6,800 years. 

Around the globe (and beyond), everyone from astronomers to astronauts, photographers to just plain folks have been amazed and enchanted by the celestial marvel. Images posted to social media show the fireball lighting up the skies over castles in England, lavender fields in Spain, the Pantheon in Paris, and right here in Chicago.   

Thanks, space, we needed that. 

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

Note: This story was first published Monday, July 13, 2020. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” video.

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