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A celestial summer visitor

Comet NEOWISE visible in local sky

This is Comet NEOWISE, recently photographed near the northern lights in the region. Depending on the weather and cloud cover, the comet will best be visible through this week. (Photo courtesy of Paul Nelson)

MARQUETTE — Sometimes it benefits northerners to live where they do.

Comet NEOWISE now can be observed in the region and, according to EarthSky.org, is not visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

Thus, the comet can be seen in the Upper Peninsula, it definitely being in the Northern Hemisphere.

Craig Linde, a member of the Facebook group Marquette Amateur Astronomers, said members have been posting photos of the comet on its page.

He said the best time to see the comet in the evening sky will be between now and July 26.

“It is not a super bright comet, but it is easily visible to the naked eye if you know where to look,” Linde said in an email.

Due to the lack of contract between the sky and comet, the comet’s surface brightness is low, Linde said.

That means an observer has to be away from city lights to have a chance of seeing it, he said. Before Thursday, its brightness hopefully will be steady, but become dimmer as it pulls away from Earth and the sun.

“With the U.P. being located so far north, our twilights last a long time,” Linde said. “However, this does have one advantage — the comet is circumpolar. Since it never sets, even at 2 and 3 in the morning it is still a little above the horizon in the due north, and by 4 a.m. is getting higher as dawn breaks.”

The comet was visible only in the morning sky about a week ago, Linde noted, but is now more visible in the evening sky and will climb even higher in the northwest twilight.

The Lowell Observatory, based in Flagstaff, Arizona, explained on its website at lowell.edu that the full scientific designation of Comet NEOWISE is Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE. The “C” indicates it’s a non-periodic comet — one that takes either a relatively long time to orbit Earth, or never completes an orbit. With Comet NEOWISE, its period is estimated at 4,500 to 6.800 years.

The number “2020” stands for the year the comet was discovered, and “F” reveals the month of the discovery, in this case, the second half of March. The “3” means this was the third such comet discovered in the second half of March. NEOWISE denotes the discoverer: a NASA space telescope, Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Explorer.

Of course, there are some challenges to seeing the comet.

“Due to its location fairly close to the horizon and its somewhat faint but solid appearance, you really can’t see it from, for example, your backyard in Marquette or other towns,” Linde said. “Most of our club members have been going down to the lakeshore in Marquette or — my favorite choice — the scenic turnout on M-28 just east of the (Ojibwa) casino.”

This location, he said, gets the observer away from city street lights and affords a great view of the northern horizon over Lake Superior.

Linde said Comet NEOWISE was closest to the sun around July 3 and has been getting dimmer since then, but it also is getting closer to Earth so it actually appears bigger and brighter, especially since its tail has been expanding.

It will be closest to Earth on Thursday, he pointed out, so it may get even easier to spot. By that day it will be higher so it should still be located high enough in the northwest to be easily visible well after midnight.

“I’d say that between 11 p.m. and midnight is the best time to look for it as the sky darkens and before it gets too low along the horizon,” Linde said.

An optical aid probably will help the observer.

“Remember: All photos of the comet show it better than the naked eye can see it,” Linde said. “It really is a great object in binoculars, and from a dark site is not difficult to spot with the naked eye.”

Linde recommended the EarthSky link at https://earthsky.org/space/how-to-see-comet-c2020-f3-neowise to get more information.

Linde suggested people follow his group’s Facebook to know if club members are going out to view or photograph the comet.

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