The big news in night sky this week was going to be Saturn’s annual opposition, but then Comet NEOWISE survived its closest approach to the Sun and trumpeted into naked-eye visibility, so now I want to talk about this unpredictable messenger from space instead.
NEOWISE gets its name from the space-based telescope that discovered it back in March: the Wide-Angle Infrared Survey Explorer, acronym WISE, that has been on the mission of seeking near-Earth objects, or NEO’s.
But did you know that NEOWISE was not he first comet to break into the headlines this year, even though it’s been the only one to survive its perihelion and break into visibility? Comets ATLAS and SWAN preceded NEOWISE into 2020 and though they held great promise as they dived sunward, both of them dissipated without realizing their hoped-for potential. Then came NEOWISE, like the anchor on a relay team, picking up the baton for the strong finish.
NEOWISE is visible in the evening sky this week, drifting up under the belly of the Great Bear as it gets higher each evening. NEOWISE will be closest to the Earth on Thursday, July 23rd, which will make it easier to see, but it’s moving further and further away from the Sun, so it’s getting dimmer as it goes.
It has been said of comets that they are connected with the spiritual destiny of the time in which they appear and that they are like mighty celestial sweepers, made visible by the potentially chaotic astral substance they are called in to clean up.
With a crescent Moon waxing through the sunset sky this week, while Jupiter and Saturn rise up as guardians in the East, together with the better part of the Milky Way now in view and the leading edge of the Perseid Meteor Shower coming into view, NEOWISE will have great company for a spectacular week of stargazing!