Long ago, a 3-mile-wide chunk of ice and dirt started on a journey from its home in the cold dark outer reaches of the solar system. Now after traveling billions of miles and several thousand years, it has come close enough for us to see it, a spectacular comet in the night sky.
Named Neowise for the telescope that first spotted it four months ago, it is the brightest comet to visit us in over 20 years.
Do you want to see it for yourself? First, you have to wait until it gets completely dark, which is around 11 p.m. this time of year. Then you need to get somewhere you can see low into the north. Look for the comet beneath the Big Dipper, which will be hanging upside down in the northwest. As of this writing, it was easily visible to the naked eye, but a pair of binoculars will reveal even more. It will be visible in the north until it starts to get light again around 3 a.m.
On July 22, Neowise reaches its closest approach to Earth at about 64 million miles away. It will be traveling close to 150,000 miles per hour at that point.
Do not put off looking for it, since it will quickly dim into obscurity as it heads back out into the depths of space. A common misperception people have is that they think they will see a blazing fireball spouting flames and sparks streaking across the sky. If you see something like that, it is a meteor. The comet will appear stationary, although if you watch it night after night you can track its motion across the sky.
If you miss it this time, comet Neowise will return. In the year 8820, more or less. Do you think you can wait that long?