Astro Bob: Comet NEOWISE makes a bright appearance at dawn — come see!

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Read more of his work at

A brightening dawn sky and thin clouds couldn’t keep Comet NEOWISE from appearing this morning around 3:45 a.m. low in the northeastern sky. The comet was very difficult to see in 10×50 binoculars because of clouds but easy in a telescope and no problem for the camera. Details: 200mm lens at f/2.8, 2-second exposure at ISO 400. (Bob King, for the News Tribune)

I made my first attempt for Comet NEOWISE Saturday morning, July 4. I probably should have turned around and gone back to bed, but there was just enough of an opening in the clouds to offer an iota of hope, so I stuck it out. Glad I did.

Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) rounded the sun on July 3rd at a distance of just 27.3 million miles (44 million km) … and survived! Now it’s a first magnitude object visible at dawn low in the northeastern sky below the bright star Capella in Auriga. That’s plenty bright normally to see with the naked eye, but the comet must compete with the dawn light, moonlight and very low altitude (where the air absorbs its light) for about a week until it’s better placed.

Wow! Chris Schur of Payson, Arizona captured Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) in a rapidly brightening dawn sky on July 4 with a 4-second exposure using a Canon XTi at ISO 400 and a 6-inch f/6.3 Schmidt-Newtonian telescope. The comet displayed a bright, strongly condensed head and a delicate dust tail fanning to the southwest. Schur said it was easy in 9×60 binoculars but not visible with the naked eye. Chris Schur

Few observers have seen it without optical aid but many have found it in binoculars when the sky is cloud-and-haze-free. My best view was in a telescope. The comet’s head glowed yellow, and I could make out a section of its fan-shaped tail. Without the clouds NEOWISE would have appeared much brighter. Chris Schur’s photograph captures the delicate beauty of the comet perfectly.


Use this map to help you track down Comet NEOWISE in the early dawn sky. Start at Capella, located about 20° high (two fists) a little less than 2 hours before sunrise. (Stellarium with additions by Bob King)

For the next few days, NEOWISE will probably be next to impossible to see with the naked eye, but 50mm or larger binoculars should reveal the bright head and part of the tail, too. To see the comet you’ll need to get up about 2 hours before sunrise (calculate here ) and drive to a place with a view as close to the northeastern horizon as possible. NEOWISE only stands about 3°-5° high 1 hour and 45 minutes before sunrise, probably the best time to see it.

Here in Duluth, that’s around 3:30-4 a.m. I focused my binoculars on the star Capella and then just dropped down toward the horizon until I ran into the comet. Theta (θ) and Beta (β) Aurigae are also helpful stars. Between Capella and Theta you should have no problem star-hopping to NEOWISE as long as the sky isn’t covered in haze or thin clouds like mine was.

As a bonus for getting up early you’ll get to see Venus rise, too. The white streaks in the background are noctilucent clouds. (Bob King, for the News Tribune)

NEOWISE moves to the left or east over the coming week and also climbs a little higher with each dawn until about July 11. After that it transitions into the evening sky where we’ll finally see it true darkness. As long as the comet hews close to its brightness forecast it should become a beautiful object easily though faintly visible with the naked eye. It passes closest to the Earth on July 23rd at a very safe distance of 64 million miles (103 million km).


Photo update: Wow to the 5th power! Chris Schur photographed the comet again on the morning of July 5th with a 6-inch refracting telescope. “It really was easy naked eye, like a 3rd mag star in a dark sky,” wrote Schur. He also saw about a degree of tail and remarked on yellow the comet appeared in his telescope. Chris Schur

Go crazy and lose a little sleep. I arrived home at 4:30 a.m. to tweeting birds and a soft bed. AND I had seen a brand new comet!

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