LOS ANGELES - Stargazers, grab your binoculars: A newly-discovered comet is approaching Earth, and it’s likely to make for the best comet sighting from our planet in years.
According to NASA, the comet, called C/2020 F3 or NEOWISE, was discovered back in March by NASA’s NEOWISE mission.
The comet “survived its recent closest approach to the sun, and is now headed back toward the outer solar system," the NASA report said.
In March, the comet was faint, but this month, the comet is relatively easy to observe with binoculars or a telescope. The comet continues to brighten, and is becoming visible to the naked eye.
"It's really exciting and doesn't happen often." Joe Masiero, NEOWISE Deputy Principal Investigator said. "Right now it's only visible for about a twenty minute window just before sunrise."
Astronauts viewed the stunning light show earlier this month. "Last night's fireworks, for real. Because Science," NASA astronaut Bob Behnken tweeted.
Stacey Anne Leeson, from Michigan, snapped another gorgeous shot of the comet. “Comet NEOWISE from Middleville, Michigan early this morning,” Leeson wrote.
NEOWISE is about five kilometers or three miles across - which Masiero says is a larger than average size of a comet.
The comet will make its closest approach to Earth on July 23, at a distance of about 64 million miles.
Masiero says viewing should be better on July 23, due to the comet's closer proximity to Earth. However, it's also further than the sun at that point, which creates its own challenges.
Masiero says comets are typically very difficult to see, and you have to search a long time and use big telescopes to find them. "It's very rare that one of them gets this bright, that people can see with your naked eye," Masiero said.
The comet “should become easier for more people to observe as July goes on,” NASA wrote. Despite the comet’s perceived appearance that it is hurtling toward Earth, it is not dangerous or a threat and will harmlessly pass through the Solar System.
Since this particular comet takes about 6,800 years to make one lap around its orbit, it won’t visit the inner solar system again for thousands of years.
How to watch
Those in the northern hemisphere will be able to view the comet for most of July, but its closest approach will be on July 23.
NEOWISE is currently an evening sky object. The comet will be best viewed facing west-northwest after sunset.
The comet can be viewed at about 10 degrees above the northeastern horizon. It will continue to climb higher in the sky throughout the month.
According to NASA, observers at lower latitudes will see the comet lower in the sky, while it will appear higher for observers farther north. Due to this low horizon view, Masiero suggests viewing in an area that is free of buildings and trees.
Binoculars or a telescope will make the viewing experience easiest, but as the month progresses, skygazers will easily be able to view the comet with unaided eyes.
Since the comet can be viewed throughout the month, make sure to pick a day when your local forecast calls for clear skies to the northeast of wherever you are. Good weather will give watchers the best viewing opportunity.
"this is one of those rare opportunities that we're given by the universe to see something that's really cool," Masiero said.
If you want to know how long this comet will stick around for atmospheric viewing, it's hard to predict. Masiero says you never know what will happen as a comet evolves, as they are very unpredictable.