Urban light pollution has so dimmed the heavens that those of us living in cities barely register the awesome spectacle countless generations of our forebears contemplated nightly. The night sky inspired imaginative creation stories and intricate mythologies. It turned thoughts to religion and to science, to astrology and astronomy.
Yet even as the industrial age has shrouded the stars, technology has also put within reach of the average person the ability to see them like never before. The citizen scientist now has access to equipment that was once the province of dedicated astronomers only. And this July, we have the opportunity to graze upon to this night sky and see the wonders of nature.
The human experience of comets is a fleeting phenomenon at best. The dark night sky can reward those gazing upwards with a spectacular vision of these far-travelling objects, but it's a view that lasts only weeks or months, before these icy bodies continue on their journeys.
NASA astronaut Bob Behnken took pictures of C/2020 F3 from ISS.
On 27 March this year, NASA's space telescope, Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) discovered such a visitor.
C/2020 F3, nicknamed as NEOWISE is quite a beauty. Since early June, NEOWISE has been wowing stargazers with its long tail and highly condensed core. The comet 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, visible the second part of July.
“From July 14, C/2020 F3, a comet discovered on March 27, will be clearly visible in the north-western sky. It will be visible after sunset for around 20 minutes for the next 20 days. People can observe it from naked eyes," said Subhendu Pattnaik, deputy director of Pathani Samanta Planetarium in Bhubaneswar.
NASA’s Neowise infrared space telescope discovered the comet in March. Scientists involved in the mission said the comet is about 3 miles (5 kilometres) across. Its nucleus is covered with sooty material dating back to the origin of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. It won’t be back in our solar system for almost 7000 years.
“The comet will be visible around the world until mid-August, when it heads back toward the outer solar system. 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
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have already caught a glimpse shown in Figure 1.
NASA's Bob Behnken shared a spectacular photo of the comet on his social media accounts, showing central Asia in the background and the space station in the foreground. "Stars, cities, spaceships, and a comet!" he tweeted from orbit.