Opportunities to view the Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3 had many seeking the evening skies, and with good reason.
The comet will not return to the inner portions of the solar system for an estimated 6,800 years, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“Comets are like cats; they have tails and they do exactly what they want,” David H. Levy wrote.
Levy, a Canadian amateur astronomer and science writer who also has discovered comets and minor planets.
The comet made its closest approach to the sun on July 3, Levy said.
It will cross outside Earth’s orbit on its way back to the outer parts of the solar system by mid-August, according to NASA.
Comet NEOWISE is named after its discoverer, the NEOWISE astronomical space telescope. NEOWISE stands for Near Earth Objects Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.
According to Levy, comets are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the Sun. When frozen, they are the size of a small town. 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. The dust and gases form a tail that stretches away from the Sun for millions of miles. There are likely billions of comets orbiting our Sun in the Kuiper Belt and even more distant Oort Cloud. The current number of known comets is 3,650.
Comet brightness is unpredictable, and the comet could dim or even brighten overnight, Levy added.
This NASA sky map shows the location of Comet NEOWISE in the evening sky for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere in July 2020. (Images by NASA)