It’s a bird, a plane, a comet

Pictured above, in the northwest sky around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, July 17, is Comet NEOWISE, as seen above the lights of Cameron (at right) and the Rice Lake Regional Airport (at left), with clouds in the distance beyond the horizon. Photo by Carl Cooley, The Chetek Alert

Look to the stars to see a rare sight. The comet named NEOWISE is visible just after sunset in the northwest sky below the Big Dipper constellation, but it will be getting harder to see as the days go on.

Former NASA engineer and Chetek resident Jim Adams noted the comet (officially named Comet C/2020 F3) passes near the sun and earth every 6,800 years and this is the brightest comet visible from Earth in 23 years. While visible by the naked eye, Adams recommended using a pair of binoculars or a small telescope.

“The comet has passed its closest distance to the sun (perihelion) at 27 million miles (on July 3) and is on its way out into space, where it will reach a distance of 720 astronomical units—that is 720 times the distance from Earth to the sun—where it begins a return journey to the sun,” Adams noted.

The roughly 3-mile-wide comet will grow fainter and harder to see as it travels away from the sun and Earth. According to NASA, the comet will be at its closest to Earth (64 million miles away) on Wednesday, July 22.

The sun’s bright rays and solar wind create at least two tails made of dust and ionized gas. The larger, curved dust tail is made of dust, rock and ice that is blown away as the comet’s surface is heated by sunlight. The fainter ion tail is made of ionized gasses blown away, opposite from the sun, by the magnetic fields in the solar wind.

NEOWISE is named for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer satellite, which first detected the comet on March 27.

The photo above was taken with a tripod and a 60-second exposure from the Creamery Road hill south of Cameron. It was later processed to brighten the comet and night sky.