NEOWISE now fading…

If you haven’t managed to see the lovely Comet NEOWISE F3 with your naked eye yet you might have missed your chance.

At its brightest a couple of weeks ago, as F3 was barrelling towards us after surviving its whip around the Sun it was clearly visible to the naked eye as a star with a long, misty, feathery trail curving away from it, a trail that long exposure photographs showed stretched for many degrees across the sky.

Long-time comet observers – for so long starved of a comet that could be seen without a telescope or even a pair of binoculars – looking at it from a dark sky site, away from light pollution, were surprised and fascinated by how easy it was to see and how big it appeared to the unaided eye, and many non-astronomers were delighted by the opportunity to see such a rare event just from their gardens or after a short walk to somewhere a little darker. F3 actually became so bright, and so big in the sky, that it could be photographed with the cameras on mobile phones.

From here in Kendal, Cumbria, my best views came on July 20th and 21st, when I was able to see the comet from a dark sky site and take photos of it using a tracking mount. I was able to capture both its curved, pale yellow-white dust tail and its long, straight blue gas tail…

Of course, it couldn’t last…

F3 has now passed Earth and is heading off back into the cold depths of the solar system again so it has faded a lot and is only going to get fainter and fainter now.

Above is a photo I took two nights ago – you can see how it has changed in appearance – and reports I’ve read this morning put it at around magnitude 4.5, so if you are blessed to live under a dark sky – or can get to one without having to travel too far – you can still see NEOWISE glowing faintly beneath the stars of the Plough with just your eyes, but most people will now need a pair of binoculars to see it. But even so, a magnitude 4.5 comet is rare and nothing to be sniffed at, especially after these recent frustrating years of peering at 8th and 9th magnitude comets through telescope eyepieces.

So, if you haven’t seen F3 yet do try this week – it won’t be back for almost 7,000 years. Many people are saying NEOWISE has “gone” now it’s no longer so obvious to the naked eye but that’s just not true. It is still a lovely sight in binoculars and telescopes, and again, a 4th or even 5th magnitude comet is rare so it is very definitely still worth looking for. Here’s where to look for it…

All images: Stuart Atkinson

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