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Quite The Sight

Comet Streaking Past Earth, Providing Spectacular Show

Comet Neowise is seen from Blockville around 10:24 p.m. on Wednesday. It can be seen after sunset looking northwest above the horizon. It's One of the brightest comet seen in North America since Hale-Bopp in 1997. P-J photo by David Hecei

A newly discovered comet is streaking past Earth, providing a stunning nighttime show after buzzing the sun and expanding its tail.

Comet Neowise — the brightest comet visible from the Northern Hemisphere in a quarter-century — swept within Mercury’s orbit a week ago. Its close proximity to the sun caused dust and gas to burn off its surface and create an even bigger debris tail. Now the comet is headed our way, with closest approach in two weeks.

NASA’s Neowise infrared space telescope discovered the comet in March.

Scientists involved in the mission said the comet is about 3 miles across. Its nucleus is covered with sooty material dating back to the origin of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

According to Tom Traub, member of the Martz Observatory board, time is running out locally for those wishing to observe the comet in the morning sky before sunrise.

“At 5 a.m., the sky is getting bright and the comet will be getting harder to see,” Traub said. “The comet will be found in the northeast direction at 17 degrees above the horizon, but by the 28th of July, it’s only 3.5 degrees.

“You will have a much better view in the evening sky after sunset. The comet will be moving higher in the sky each night, but it’s also getting further from the sun, so it’s getting dimmer.

“The big help right now is it’s getting closer to Earth to help make its dimming slower. Closest approach to Earth is on July 22 when its 64.3 million miles from us.

Traub said by Thursday, July 23, the comet will have dropped about three times in brightness and its tail will be reduced in length. The best time to start looking for the comet will be around 9:30 p.m. in the northwest sky, he said.

The comet will sit the length of the big dipper about half-way from the lower pointer star of the bowl of the dipper to the horizon.

While it’s visible with the naked eye in dark skies with little or no light pollution, binoculars are needed to see the long tail, according to NASA.

It will be about 7,000 years before the comet returns, “so I wouldn’t suggest waiting for the next pass,” said the telescope’s deputy principal investigator Joe Masiero of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

He said it is the brightest comet since the mid-1990s for stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Associated Press Contributed to this story.

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